Representatives of the four major utility companies in the Carolinas spoke at the meeting and all indicated their companies are actively developing alternative energy, including locating sources and buying biomass for use in their boilers.

Steve Spivey, who works for Santee-Cooper in South Carolina, says his company got into the use of biomass for generating electricity in a somewhat unexpected way. Hurricane Hugo ravaged much of South Carolina back in the 1990s and at that time utility companies were beginning to look at biomass as a source of replacing coal for generating electricity.

“Hugo left millions of tons of debris. While we didn’t use but a small percentage of biomass available from the storm, we did prove we can burn biomass, and it has set the stage for further studies that helped prepare our company to get into the practice of using biomass for generating electricity,” Spivey says.

All of the electric utility companies in the Carolinas now use biomass at some level. Most combine biomass with coal, using injectors or other technical means of adding biomass to coal. Most have followed a national trend of converting coal-fired boilers to biomass use, while some are investigating the return on investment for building new facilities designed to run only on biomass.

Tracy Beer, who is an engineer for Duke Energy, says most everything about biomass is different from coal. At the farmer level, she says, buying biomass from hundreds of farmers or landowners — even small companies that buy from farmers, package and sale of biomass — is distinctly different from buying huge amounts of coal from two or three sources.

Veteran University of Georgia agronomist Dewey Lee, speaking at the meeting, says the on-farm options for growers to produce biomass are likely to be varied in the future. Right now, he says, the most attention is focused on switchgrass and sorghum. While both have shown promise as rapid growing, cost-effective biomass crops in the Southeast, as the industry develops, it is likely that several biomass crops will be used to produce energy.

Lee and researchers around the Southeast have looked at a number of potential biomass crops, including energy cane and sun hemp. “We can grow a number high yielding biomass crops in the Southeast, and a number of these will likely have a place in biofuel production,” the University of Georgia researcher says.

McCaskill says there is little doubt the ethanol and biodiesel industries in the U.S. will meet their goal by 2025. Already, he says there is over 13 billion gallons of ethanol being produced and capacity to produce more, without any great increase in production facilities.

Biodiesel will be a small player, only one billion gallons of production toward the 36 billion gallons needed. Already, McCaskill says, the industry produces slightly more than a half billion gallons of biodiesel.

Cellulosic biofuels from forest waste, biomass and other sources has virtually no production facilities up and running. This, he says, offers a huge opportunity for rural development in the Southeast. It also offers a huge opportunity for innovative farmers who have the land and financial resources to get in on the bottom floor of this production.