Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE
MADISON - Thousands of discarded pieces of tree trunks and pine branches litter the ground of Whitey Hunt's 2,300-acre family farm in Morgan County.
The wooden crumbs are left behind when machines come in to clear-cut or thin out patches of trees sold to paper or lumber companies. Most of the time, the leftovers are burned or shoved into piles off to the side because there is no point in hauling them out.
Eventually, if some lawmakers have their way, the wood waste could be distilled into a form of diesel fuel, help fill up the gas tanks of Georgia drivers and allow the state to produce its own alternative fuel source.
"There's no use for it today," Hunt said about the debris, "but if you get the ethanol plant going, there'd be a use for it."
Wood chips from sawmills and plywood mills also could be refined into the fuel.
Though tree farmers aren't expecting to make a windfall from selling chips to ethanol plants, the state's forestry industry has been pinched by declining wood prices and overseas competition.
The idea has a long way to go, and even farmers like Hunt who stand to make some money off the waste that now goes up in smoke remain cautious about the potential from a wood-based ethanol industry.
But locked in the branches of Georgia's abundant pine trees is the chance for stable gasoline prices, clean air and jobs in rural counties, according to an unlikely coalition of supporters pushing the concept in the General Assembly.
Republican lawmakers are joining the chorus of environmental groups, farmers and business investors to sing the potential of locally grown biofuel.
Legislators introduced a bill in late January, offering tax breaks for building new biofuel facilities.
House Bill 186, which came from Gov. Sonny Perdue, provides a five-year sales tax exemption on the materials and equipment on plants that process ethanol, biodiesel or butanol fuels.
Those alternative fuels have to come from plant parts or animal fats produced in Georgia to qualify for the 4 percent tax cut proposed in the bill.
Other bills intended to attract the industry are expected to come up later this session.
Some alternative fuel operations already are running in the state, including U.S. Biofuels in Rome, which converts leftover poultry fat from processing plants into biodiesel.
Construction has started in South Georgia, where a $170 million ethanol plant using corn is being built in Mitchell County. Perdue recently announced that the state was awarding First United Ethanol LLC a $500,000 grant from economic development funds for the project.
Augusta also could join in the trend if Coastal Xethanol follows through on plans to convert a former pharmaceutical plant into a facility that pumps out as much as 50 million gallons of ethanol from corn annually.
In all, the state now is producing 12 million gallons of biodiesel, according to state officials.
While most of the national attention - and existing federal incentives - for ethanol has focused on corn, Georgia doesn't grow enough of the crop to feed the proposed facilities. …