City a little lean on people going green

Published: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 12:25 a.m.
As a self-described conservationist, Caron Cadle isn't proud that her house in Haile Plantation "sucks energy like crazy."
So when the 47-year-old writer learned about a Gainesville Regional Utilities program last year hawking renewable energy at a premium price, she felt obligated to join.
"It's an extra (amount) on your energy bill each month, but we wanted to support getting energy from alternative sources, and not something like getting a new coal-fired plant," Cadle said.
But while many may agree with her logic, few have followed her lead.
With the Gainesville City Commission poised to consider GRU's plans to construct a coal-and-wood-burning power plant later this month, only a fraction of the region's total energy customers have taken advantage of Gainesville's alternative energy program.
Of the estimated 76,000 residential GRU customers, just 375 are now paying for the solar, wind and landfill gas electricity available through GRUgreen, utility records show. An additional 27 commercial customers, including the city of Gainesville and The Gainesville Sun, have signed up since the program was launched in late 2003.
"We knew it was going to take a while to get public awareness of green energy," said Mark Spiller, a GRU strategic planning analyst and one of the program's founders.
"I'm a conservation nut myself, and I think everybody should subscribe immediately," he said. "But realistically, that doesn't happen, and it does take a while for these types of programs to catch on."
Spiller may see the evolution as a naturally slow process, but critics and supporters of GRU's coal-fired plans both question why GRUgreen's turnout is so low, especially at a time when public discussion is centered on electricity.
Most troubling of all, some say, is the lack of participation among the very people involved in planning for Gainesville's energy future.
"What a hypocrite I'd be if I was sitting there, talking about all these alternative energy sources and wasn't subscribing to the one (program) that we have," said Rick Bryant, one of only two city commissioners paying into the program. Warren Nielsen, a top GRUgreen donor, is the other.
"If you're preaching the concept," Bryant added, "you should be a member."
For more than a year, GRU has offered ratepayers the option of voluntarily adding charges to their monthly bill. Because "green" energy is more expensive to produce than power from conventional fuels such as coal - GRU says the difference is about 2 cents per kilowatt hour - the utility has given customers the opportunity to support GRUgreen with installments ranging from $5 to $20 a month.
And while it's impossible to separate "green" electrons from "conventional" ones in the power grid, the utility says supporters of GRUgreen are helping to reduce the region's dependence on fossil fuels by allowing it to produce - or buy - more renewable power.
As participation in the program increases, GRU says, less energy from fossil fuel is being produced.
Despite the benefits, however, turnout at City Hall has been spotty.
Some claim GRU had been slow to process their application, while others questioned the effectiveness of the program altogether.
One commissioner even blamed his wife. "I should be on there," Tony Domenech said. "When I found out about (the program), I said, 'Honey, I need to do this GRUgreen thing.' Lynn pays all the bills."
Not every elected official with a stake in powering Gainesville said they had unintentionally overlooked GRUgreen registration, however.
Commissioner Ed Braddy, one of the most vocal supporters of a new coal-fired unit, said his decision to abstain from the program was based on economics, pure and simple.
"For people that say we, as a community, aren't doing enough environmentally, I think this is the perfect opportunity to put their money where their mouth is," Braddy said.
"But for others who believe affordability is more important, it may not be (a priority). That's where we are. My wife and I are trying to raise a family, and we try to minimize expenditures."
Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, another notable city official absent from the program, said she has refrained out of protest.
"I think there are a lot of people who care deeply about the environment who feel that we shouldn't have to pay extra to have a sense of the right thing being done by our local utility," Hanrahan said.
People "would like to see GRU incorporate more green energy as a course of doing business, as opposed to a system that requires" voluntary contributions, she said.
Commissioner Craig Lowe, who said he thought he had registered and wasn't sure what happened, agreed with Hanrahan. Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said the cost of the program had prohibited him from participating.
Beyond City Hall, many in the environmental community echoed the mayor's argument when defending their decision not to support GRUgreen.
Dian Deevey, a member of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee and one of the power plant's most vocal critics, said the program is nothing more than a high-profile marketing ploy.
"My conclusion is that 'green tags' are PR efforts and sources of money for a utility," Deevey said, using the term for a program that gives customers the opportunity to support renewable energy.
"They have no impact on whether renewable energy is produced," she said.
Similar criticism was raised by Chris Bird, the county's environmental department director.
"I'm not yet convinced that it's an effective program, and I have concern about some of the so-called green energy sources they are claiming," Bird said.
Among the three county commissioners living within GRU's service area - Cynthia Chestnut, Paula DeLaney and Lee Pinkoson - none are listed as GRUgreen members, though Commissioner Pinkoson said Thursday he had submitted his application months ago and was surprised to learn from a reporter that his name was never added.
"I'm signed up now," Pinkoson said Friday morning.
"I'm good to go." Of course, the most consistent support for GRUgreen has come from GRU itself. Among the utility's 11-member executive management team listed on its Web site, eight - including General Manager Mike Kurtz - live in GRUgreen households.
GRU marketing manager Rosemary Flagler said that's because the program is already halfway to the utility's goal of a 1 percent participation rate - the national average for residential customers - and management is elated.
"Here at GRU we just want to see renewable energy succeed," Flagler said.
"If you are going to offer that for your customers, you really should be able to support it as well."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026.

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