Fueling the energy debate

Aerial view of the GRU Deerhaven Power Generating Plant.

JON M. FLETCHER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Three months after Gainesville hired a consultant to identify the best way to meet its future energy needs, the preliminary results are looking familiar.
Gainesville city commissioners learned Tuesday that ICF Consulting, a firm based in Fairfax, Va., plans to study two types of coal power plants, a natural gas plant and conservation strategies as it works to review the best ways to extend Gainesville Regional Utilities' energy supply beyond 2011. The firm will issue a final report on the options in March.
Commissioners have debated the issue for more than two years and all the options to be considered by ICF have been brought up in that time. But the fact that the recommendations don't contain any surprises shows the commission has been on the right track, Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said.
"I think it's probably exactly what I would have predicted they'd be analyzing," Hanrahan said. "It reinforces that there isn't some great option out there that's never been considered."
But others have raised concerns that more innovative, renewable fuels were not included in the list.
Commissioners hired ICF for $345,000 in November to analyze GRU's plan to build a 220-megawatt, $460-million coal-fired power plant to meet growing demand for electricity as well as several alternatives, but allowed the company to select the options it would review.
The company's final report will likely be one of the final pieces of evidence commissioners read before choosing a direction for Gainesville's electrical future.
ICF will review the different strategies to determine their financial feasibility, environmental impact and likely effect on ratepayers, who will ultimately foot the bill for both the generator itself and its fuel.
King Lin, an ICF principal working on the GRU report, declined to comment on the options until after the company discussed them with city commissioners and residents. Company representatives will meet with commissioners Thursday before making a public presentation at Ironwood Golf Course, 2100 NE 39th Ave, at 6:30 p.m.
Coal: For two years, GRU has championed a coal power plant as the most cost-effective and reliable means of providing for future electrical demand.
Coal is the least expensive fossil fuel used in electrical generation, and is now burned in GRU's Deerhaven II power plant. But the prospect of building another coal-fired generator in Gainesville has alarmed environmental advocates, who have raised concerns about pollutants, such as greenhouse gases and mercury, that would be released by the plant.
However, GRU officials have said new technologies greatly reduce these pollutants.
GRU officials referred questions on the consultant's memo to the City Commission on Wednesday. Since the selection of ICF, the utility has publicly distanced itself from the review to avoid the appearance of influencing the process.
Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle: Another option included in ICF's memo, an integrated gasification combined cycle generator, also burns coal to create electricity. But the technology, which is relatively new and used in only a handful of power plants in the United States, allows most of the pollutants and greenhouse gases normally associated with coal to be separated out to prevent them from entering the atmosphere.
This means power can be generated relatively inexpensively but with little pollution, said Paul Sotkiewicz, head of the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida's Warrington School of Business.
But because it is still in the early stages of adoption, gasification technology could lead to higher start-up costs and greater risks for GRU, Sotkiewicz said.
Natural gas: ICF also will look at natural gas as a possible fuel source, though GRU has already rejected a plan for such a plant, citing the volatile price of the fuel. Natural gas has been seen as preferable to coal because it produces fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases, and natural gas generators are less expensive.
But increasing the amount of coal GRU uses compared to natural gas, which is two or three times as expensive, would lead to immediate decreases in customers' bills, Sotkiewicz said.
Reducing energy consumption: ICF's final option differs from the others in that it does not recommend the construction of any new facilities, but instead suggests aggressive conservation policies to reduce customers' demand for electricity.
It's a recommendation that already has a base of support among many activists in Gainesville, who have opposed GRU's plan because of concerns about global warming and mercury and other pollutants.
"The basic issue is whether we need 220 megawatts," said Dian Deevy, a member of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee and author of a report critical of GRU's plan. "I think it's way above what we would ever need if we had aggressive conservation and energy efficiency."
But many energy efficiency programs are problematic because they can lead to higher rates for some customers, often those who can't afford to upgrade old equipment even if it is subsidized, Sotkiewicz said.
In addition, such a plan would require GRU to buy power from other utilities, which is more expensive than generating it, he said.
Option not included Deevy and Commissioner Craig Lowe said they were disappointed that another option was not included in the report: burning waste-wood to generate electricity.
This technology could be used in both the generators fueled by coal, but Deevy said a small generator combined with conservation could meet the areas needs.
Lowe said the lack of an option regarding renewable fuels, such as waste-wood, could inspire him to ask for another review that would focus on these fuels.
Commissioners have said they want to settle the issue, by agreeing to a plan that has "stable" support on the commission before new members of the board are sworn in this spring.
"This should not be something that could swing back and forth on the basis of elections," Hanrahan said Wednesday.
Jeff Adelson can be reached at 352-374-5095 or adelsoj@gvillesun.com

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