Just minutes from the Atlantic Ocean on St. Helena Island near Beaufort is Little Gem Tree Farm, a wholesale tree distributor.
Alongside the rows of potted magnolias, hollies, crape myrtles and Japanese maples, you will find the only biomass renewable generator on SCE&G's net metering program.
Capitalizing on a trend in renewable energy around the country, Duane Julian, president of American Capital Resources Co. and owner of the South Carolina farm, is taking solid waste wood from timber and logging operations and burning it in his 50-kilowatt generator to produce energy for the grid.
"That's part of what's unique," Julian said. "In most operations, the wood is chipped or ground and then often reground. One of the project thrusts has been to use it in its solid form, then combust it at high temperatures and utilize it that way as opposed to all the chipping and grinding."
Right now, Julian says he generally reloads every six to 12 hours, sometimes more often.
"He sells the energy he generates back to us. We put it back on our system and distribute it to our network. And we're paying him for that energy," said Casey Logan, SCE&G engineer.
The South Carolina Energy Office defines net metering as employing a standard electrical meter to record the flow of energy back and forth between a customer-generator and the utility's power grid. SCE&G has offered net metering for almost three years with approximately 80 residential customers and about 15 commercial customers. It is available to customers who install renewable energy systems to generate their own electricity.
Behind Julian's biomass generator is a utility pole with a transformer that converts the power from 480 volts to 7,200 volts. A bi-directional meter reads the power in both directions. Julian says that each month he gets a bill that looks like a regular utility bill showing what he has exported to the grid.
The biomass renewable generator at Little Gem Tree Farm produces what Julian calls prime power generation. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, giving the utility company both peak power and off-peak power. "So we're not limited to the sun shining or the wind blowing. I think that's a really important step," Julian said.
Julian said he has always been interested in renewable energy.
"As I looked for a fuel source, I realized that South Carolina had an abundance of timber land. And then I started going to logging decks, and what I saw was incredible amounts of high-BTU-value waste wood that was being completely underutilized, often open burned and, worse yet, in the case of urban wood, actually taken to a landfill," he said.
"We've been working with him since day one - since 2008," Logan said. "We've helped with his electrical design to set parameters needed so the equipment would be compatible with our system. We worked with safety designs. Once he started, we monitored to make sure things were running properly. Duane took the extra step to reach out to us from the beginning with a line of open communication that really allowed the project to progress seamlessly without any delays.
"We're very focused on customer service. We do that for any customer exploring renewable energy options, including biomass, solar farms or wind turbines," he said. "I would say to anyone thinking about renewable energy to contact us so we can begin a relationship with open communication from the beginning of the project."
Julian says working with SCE&G has been great. "Casey has been helping me for probably in excess of three years, and I have really put him through the ringer from everything about power generation starting at kindergarten. I can't say enough about SCANA and SCE&G as far as being absolutely excellent to work with."
For the future, Julian is hoping to build a much larger combustion unit where he can take wood that is up to 20 feet in length. "I think once we get this perfected, we'll have this down to a one-man operation, as far as the running of the plant. The equipment is very sophisticated; it essentially runs itself. What's going to be required is simply making sure everything is running smoothly and keeping the solid waste wood loaded," Julian said.
"I think we're going to see South Carolina perhaps lead the nation in biomass-fueled renewable energy. That's our hope."
Kim Asbill writes for Insights, a magazine of Scana Corp.