Power plant paths plentiful


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:42 p.m.

Gainesville could get a power plant fueled by trash, tires and medical waste.

Or a coal-fueled power plant could be built after all, but using a new technology capturing more pollutants than a traditional plant.

A power plant that doubles as a particle-board factory is another possibility, as is an ethanol plant that would be attached to a power plant.

Gainesville Regional Utilities will consider these proposals and other options as it discusses how to meet the area's future energy needs. The utility received 18 letters last month from companies that want to build power plants here, sell GRU power that is produced at other locations or provide fuel for another company's plant.

The proposals represent a dramatic shift from the municipal utility's plan to build a traditional coal-fired power plant. Controversy over that plan led GRU to return to the drawing board last year and ask companies to suggest alternatives.

A half-dozen proposals involve coal, but would use a gasification technology that allows some pollution to be removed before energy is generated. Most of the remaining plans involve alternate energy sources such as garbage and wood.

"Some of these are really significant advances on state-of-the-art," said Ed Regan, GRU's chief strategic planner.

GRU now has the luxury of being able to select the best technologies and possibly use them in conjunction with each other, Regan said. The utility will now rate the proposals on factors such as environmental impact, reliability and financial risk.

Going green?

The Gainesville City Commission will make the final decision on what options, if any, to pursue.

Dian Deevey, part of an Alachua County citizens group studying GRU's plans, said she opposes any plant using coal as a fuel source. She said she's most interested in the biomass power plants that use wood for fuel.

A plant using a plasma-arc technology to zap waste into gas is intriguing, she said. But she's concerned about the risks associated with companies that haven't yet built power plants.

"We want to be sure they have a real solid track record and know what they're doing," she said.

Jacksonville-based Green Power Systems is behind the plasma-arc proposal, which would use 9,000-degree heat to vaporize trash, tires and medical waste into a gas. The gas would be fed into a boiler to produce power.

A Japanese power plant uses the technology, but a plant planned in St. Lucie County would be the first in the U.S. The technology could be the wave of the future by creating a viable use for waste, said Dick Basford, vice president of project development for Green Power.

"We like to say we're taking a liability and turning it into an asset," he said.

Waterbury, Conn.-based RoBran Industries would use a different technology to convert wood, coal and waste into energy. The plant would capture byproducts of the power-production process and release no emissions, said Tom Boyd, president of a group developing the project for RoBran.

The captured pollutants would be converted into commodities such as nitrogen gas, sulfuric acid and distilled water. The plant could also use fly ash to produce cement pavers and wood not used in power production to create particle board, Boyd said.

"The power plant makes more money off the byproduct than it does off making electricity," he said.

Regan said some of the proposed technologies are so new that GRU would have to seriously consider the potential risk in relying upon them. Some companies have proposed funding the plants and taking the risk upon themselves, but Regan said that would require GRU to change the way it has previously done business.

"It would be a definite culture shift," he said.

Trash as fuel

Plants that use coal and landfill gas would be less of a change for the utility. Atlanta-based Southern Company proposes building a coal gasification plant similar to the one it is building for the Orlando Utilities Commission.

The Orlando plant will use a technology currently used by just two other U.S. power plants that converts coal into gas for generating electricity, better allowing the capture of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. The U.S. Department of Energy has committed to paying $235 million of the expected $557 million cost.

Southern spokesman Mike Tyndall said such a subsidy likely wouldn't be available for Gainesville. He dismissed concerns about the newness of the technology, saying the company has extensively tested it.

"It has been proven in the real world in a number of different ways," he said.

The Raiford-based New River Solid Waste Association proposes using gas captured at its landfill for power production. The project could use the same technology GRU already uses at the Southwest Landfill, said New River President Darrell O'Neal.

"We're interested in any process where we can … turn this waste into an energy source," he said.

Locally grown idea

A few proposals don't involve power plants at all. Cambridge, Mass.-based Celunol proposes a plant that converts plant material into ethanol using a process developed by University of Florida microbiology professor Lonnie Ingram.

The plant would use steam from an adjoining power plant for the process. In exchange, it would provide the power plant with a byproduct to be used as fuel for energy production.

Company spokesman John Howe said Celunol saw GRU's power-plant process as an opportunity to build a local ethanol plant using the method developed at UF.

"We saw this as kind of an open door," he said.

Regan said GRU is now in the enviable position of having a wide range of technologies and proposals to consider. "It's a little bit like Christmas."

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 338-3176 or crabben@ gvillesun.com.

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