Despite years of controversy, the overall picture of the biggest investment in Alachua County’s history is still a little hazy.
After a decade of talks about Gainesville Regional Utilities’ expansion of its power capabilities, the news has seemed to generate more heat than light. Some might say that media reports haven’t fully explained many of the realities of the $500 million biomass energy plant currently being built by a private company at the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center in northwest Gainesville.
The biomass plant, located on a sprawling site near GRU’s Deerhaven generating plant, will burn tree trimmings and debris left over from logging and will sell energy to GRU starting late next year.
Although construction of the project is one-third complete, with no turning back, understanding the facts about the single biggest investment in the community’s infrastructure is important for the community to understand.
Thus the Business Report researched the key details to answer the following questions:
- Is the project needed?
- Will it cost customers more than a new generating plant using another technology would have?
- Is the plant’s technology proven?
- Is there enough biomass material available to supply the plant?
- Will burning biomass harm the environment and tear up roads?
These questions have no easy answers, due to uncertainty about what will happen during the 30-year life of the biomass plant, including the unpredictability of natural gas prices and the unknown fate of possible federal government taxation of carbon emissions.
However, these conclusions are clear:
- GRU will need new generating capacity sometime in the future, and building it now, rather than later, gets of ahead of future escalation in construction costs.
- Any new generating plant is going to raise electric rates short-term, but there’s a good chance that in 10 to 15 years after the biomass plant opens, the cost of its power will be less than the cost of power generated by natural gas.
- Biomass plants have been around for decades, including one in Palm Beach County that was built in 1995 and is 30 percent larger than Gainesville’s.
- The Gainesville biomass plant will be one of the most advanced in the world.
- The area around Gainesville is abundant in waste from trimming trees and forestry, and the biomass plant will use only a fraction of this available material.
- The biomass plant’s emissions per kilowatt hour of energy produced are nearly identical to those of GRU’s coal-burning Deerhaven II plant for most emissions, which was fitted with a $141 million scrubber and other emission controls in 2009. The exception is sulfur dioxide, with the biomass plant emitting two-third less than Deerhaven II.