As a longtime state forest ranger, Devon Dartnell used to work suppressing fires. But since November, his job has been to persuade people to burn trees -- in their gas tanks.
Dartnell is the first director of Georgia's newly created biomass energy program, a so-far under-the-radar effort to promote waste wood and agricultural byproducts as a renewable fuel source.
"Typically, when trees are cleared for a shopping center, that wood is simply burned," he says. "So we're releasing carbon into the atmosphere but not getting any benefits."
Dartnell doesn't have an official opinion as to whether the Georgia wildfire is connected to climate change. But he sees the promise of converting wood to ethanol as one way to cut our consumption of fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.
With nearly 25 million acres of forest land – the vast majority of which is privately owned – Georgia is second only to Oregon as the tree-harvesting capital of the United States. The state's timber and pulp industries produce 40 million dry tons of scrap wood annually, about half of which is used in paper production. That leaves 20 million tons of wood that go to waste every year, Dartnell says.
Until now, it hasn't been worth anyone's time or expense to find a use for this wood. But the advent of the $3 gallon of gas has upended that paradigm.
The most promising form of biomass conversion consists of turning cleared trees and branches into ethanol that can be blended with gasoline to power standard-engine cars and trucks. Already, many local Shell stations are quietly selling "E-10" gas – 90 percent gas, 10 percent ethanol – to customers who don't notice the difference.
And, although Detroit doesn't seem interested in promoting it, many new domestic vehicles such as the F-150 pickup and Ford Taurus are being offered with a "flex-fuel" option that enables them to run on E-85, containing 85 percent ethanol – at less cost than installing cruise control.
Range Fuels, a Colorado-based "green energy" company, is building an ethanol-conversion plant near Soperton, a tiny South Georgia burg that bills itself as "The Million Pines City." In its first year of operation, the firm expects to produce 10 million gallons of ethanol, with the eventual goal of ramping up to 50 million gallons.
If Georgia's now-wasted 20 million tons of wood were all converted into fuel, it could produce 160 million to 200 million gallons of ethanol, says Dartnell, adding that with so much raw material on hand, half a dozen ethanol plants could easily set up shop here without competing for resources.
Bioclimatologist Ron Neilson says planetary warming cannot easily be reversed, but he agrees with Dartnell that biomass conversion could become an important step in the right direction.
"If we learn to extract that energy without damaging the ecosystem," Neilson says, "we can mitigate the effects of global warming and enhance the health of the planet."