State utility regulators revoked an order on Thursday that could have allowed more biomass plants in Georgia to burn scrap tires for electricity.
All five members of the Georgia Public Service Commission voted to reverse course after environmental groups raised concerns in recent weeks about possible increases in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the facilities as a result of the change.
The push to allow more biomass plants to burn tires had been spearheaded by Commissioner Jason Shaw (R-Lakeland). The changes were requested by biomass industry representatives, who claimed in testimony before the commission that mixing tire scraps in with plant matter would allow them to generate more consistent electricity and cut costs.
In April, Shaw proposed a motion expanding the list of allowable fuels for biomass plants to include scrap tires and natural gas. A separate motion capped the amount of tires that could be added to a biomass boiler mix at 20% of its total heat input. The changes passed 4-to-1, with Chairman Tricia Pridemore the only vote against.
Biomass power plants produce electricity by burning organic material in boilers to produce steam. And while biomass is generally considered a more climate-friendly electricity source than coal or natural gas, some climate scientists have warned it’s not as clean as advertised.
Georgia Power’s long range energy plans approved by the PSC require the utility to buy more electricity from biomass facilities in the years ahead, and only facilities that won bids from the company would have been affected by the change.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes scrap tires as a viable alternative to fossil fuels or as a supplement to burning coal or wood. Tire remnants are already burned in at least one biomass-to-electricity plant run by a company called Green Power Solutions in Dublin, southeast of Macon. Representatives from Green Power Solutions had spoken in favor of allowing more plants to burn tires at the commission.
Soon after the changes were finalized on April 21, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) —representing the nonprofits Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, and the Partnership for Southern Equity — plus the Sierra Club petitioned the commission asking it to revoke its order. The groups argued the moves were unlawful and claimed the PSC failed to show that opening the door for more biomass plants to burn tires was in the public interest. Georgia Power, which would buy electricity from the facilities, also said it did not support the policy change.
Last month, in the wake of the groups’ petition and a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the change, Shaw backtracked and said he would ask his fellow commissioners to vacate their order. Thursday’s vote officially rolled back the policy, at least for now.
In a statement, SELC senior attorney Jennifer Whitfield praised the commission for rescinding its order.
“Today’s decision gives Georgians a chance to share their positions and learn more about why utilities burning tires for energy would be a move backward — not forward,” she said.
But the saga over biomass and tires may not be completely over.
Shaw has said that biomass representatives could petition the commission and request a formal hearing on the topic. At Thursday’s hearing, no one spoke on behalf of the industry, and it was not immediately clear whether they plan to do so.
A note of disclosure
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