Since Georgia doesn't have any oil wells, it's not commonly considered an energy-producing state. Yet it has the nation's second-largest collection of biomass in its pine forest which is drawing European utilities to the state.
The utilities are under a European Union requirement to end their use of coal in generating electricity, so they are turning to pellets made of compressed pine wood. The have already invested $1 billion in a network of factories in South Georgia. Another $2 billion in investment is in the works, according to Jill Stuckey, acting director of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center in Savannah.
"I talk to a lot of companies from Europe looking to build pellet plants," she said.
U.S. utilities don't use the pellets because they cost more than coal, which is also abundant domestically. But Europe has to ship in coal from overseas, so shipping in pellets from Georgia is comparable and satisfies their carbon-reduction mandates.
"If you work with someone with a gun to their head, it's easier," Stuckey said.
She predicted that scientists will devise an alternative to the pellets in five to seven years, but by then researchers will have found cheaper ways to turn pine materials into synthetic petroleum and the profitable chemicals that refining yields.
Another source of energy-related economic development is the conservation industry. Installing more efficient lighting and ventilation systems is a growing field, employing 7,600 pipefitters, roofers, electricians and engineers today, according to Kathy Robb, co-chairwoman of the Georgia chapter of the Energy Services Coalition and the manager of energy services for AGL Resources.
Employment can double, she said, as more state agencies take advantages of a constitutional amendment voters approved last year that allows them to enter into multi-year contracts. The longer agreements are needed so that companies will install energy-saving equipment with no upfront payment from the government as long as they can get compensated by the agencies' savings realized in the coming years.
"Without the state out there setting an example, the projects have been few and far between," she said.
Relatively low electricity rates have kept Georgia businesses from embracing conservation as much as those in other parts of the country, notes Steve Morton, manager of Georgia Power's energy-efficiency program. But that's changing, he said.
"I think it's coming more to the forefront because our prices have come up some," he said.