GRU proposal aims to overcome the `energy gap'

Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 3:08 p.m.

Most informed citizens know of the energy plan that has been placed before the City Commission by Gainesville Regional Utilities.

The complete proposal includes numerous conservation and renewable energy programs and retrofits an existing unit to be more efficient, but for opponents, the deal-breaker is the 220-megawatt solid fuel unit that will partially burn wood waste but will primarily use fossil fuels like coal and petroleum coke to generate electricity.

Critics have stated that burning coal is a source of pollution, but they have blurred the issue of energy supply, leaving the impression that future demand can be met simply through "alternatives."

A decision point can be reached by answering the following: Will there be an "energy gap" without the solid fuel unit? Can "alternatives" alone meet demand?

And what are the consequences if the commission fails to act?

GRU currently has a fixed amount of capacity with which to produce energy and needs to retire some older, less-efficient units.

However, the number of customers is increasing as our population continues to grow.

With demand rising and supply fixed, an "energy gap" will emerge by 2011 between our community's needs and GRU's ability to meet those needs.

The methodology used for this forecast is reviewed by the Florida Public Service Commission and is among the most accurate in the state. This fact is undisputed.

Increased conservation can help reduce demand and renewable fuels can be added to the supply side of the ledger.

The current proposal does both with six new conservation programs as well as renewables like biomass.

A benchmarking study found that the proposal, when implemented, will elevate GRU to a level comparable to energy conservation leaders nationwide, and the City Commission unanimously accepted this finding two months ago.

The proposal does not adopt every possible alternative program, for some are neither feasible nor desirable.

Geographic conditions make wind energy and hydropower impractical, and solar energy, already utilized in limited form, is costly and constrained by our beautiful tree canopy.

And I doubt seriously that opponents would entertain a discussion of nuclear power.

GRU uses the Rate Impact Measure Test to evaluate alternative energy proposals for cost-effectiveness.

Indeed, alternative energy programs with affordability are possible only if we generate additional electricity with less- expensive solid fuels like coal.

An independent review by energy consultant R.W. Beck found the RIM Test to be "an appropriate metric" and the financial assumptions to be "reasonable."

We could do more to close the energy gap, but only at a significant cost increase to our citizens, and the City Commission unanimously accepted this finding two months ago.

Without additional generating capacity, our future energy needs will significantly exceed GRU's capacity.

Of course, the law of supply-and-demand is not suspended upon entering Alachua County airspace.

If demand exceeds supply, energy shortages are possible and significant cost increases are certain.

Additionally, demand over supply will increase dependency on outside energy providers, thus weakening GRU's financial viability and adversely affecting the annual transfer of millions of dollars into the city's general fund.

This transfer - $27.2 million this year - enables the city to provide many services that are not fully covered by property taxes or user fees.

With higher energy costs, you might also see higher taxes or a reduction in services.

For those like me who are concerned about pollution and the health of our community, research shows that shorter life expectancy and higher rates of cancer, birth defects, infant mortality, asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses are more closely tied to poverty than pollution.

And GRU serves the least-wealthy community of all our benchmarking partners.

Substantial rate increases will not help our community fight poverty and will negatively impact low-income and fixed-income citizens.

The plan's critics call themselves "progressives." However, they lack confidence in progress.

Listening to them, we are on the verge of ecological catastrophe.

Yet last year, the United States recorded the lowest ozone smog levels since we began measuring these quantities in the 1970s (

Although there are more coal-fired plants today and energy consumption has increased by 42 percent between 1970 and 2002, the total emissions of the six principal air pollutants (nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and lead) has decreased by 48 percent over this period ( ).

How is this possible?

Innovative men and women saw a challenge and invented technologies that made the production of energy more efficient and environmentally responsible.

This trend continues.

The innovative men and women of GRU have given us a plan that will supply energy at affordable rates while reducing regulated pollutants by more than 50 percent, mercury emissions by 70 percent, and increasing the use of renewable energy.

In fact, Chris Bird, director of Alachua County's Environmental Protection Department, called the proposal the "largest pollution-control project" our community has ever implemented.

Not a perfect plan, but a responsible one that is worthy of our citizens.

Ed Braddy is a Gainesville city commissioner and current chair of the Regional Utilities Committee.

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