Energy in election spotlight


Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

The top issue facing Gainesville city commissioners in the years to come will deal with providing energy to citizens, according to the two commissioners being replaced in the Jan. 29 election.

"The decision over what type of energy to go with is not really debatable right now," said Commissioner Ed Braddy, who can't run for re-election due to term limits. "The real question is should we allow for additional supply or strictly stick with and promote only demand-size management, which is conservation and cutting back."

Gainesville city commissioners are expected in the coming months to make a decision on a new power plant, which is needed to meet a forecasted increase in energy demands. Gainesville Regional Utilities received proposals in December for a biomass power plant, which would be fueled by wood and possibly waste.

Commissioner Rick Bryant, who opted not to run for re-election for his at-large City Commission seat, said the top issue of the year will be the cost of energy.

"We're seeing an average increase in utility bills of 7 percent and above and that's really high," Bryant said. "What I hear a lot is how much utility bills have gone up and part of it is we've not put enough emphasis on decreasing the cost and increasing the efficiency."

In addition to the seats being vacated by Braddy and Bryant, the District 3 seat, which represents southwest Gainesville, is up for election.

The two candidates who are running for the at-large seat being vacated by Bryant, which is elected by the entire city, are: Robert Agrusa, 22, who graduated in December from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in political science; and attorney Thomas Hawkins Jr., 28, who specializes in growth management law for David Coffey's law firm.

Agrusa emphasized that by 2012 the city will need an alternative source of power. Otherwise, he said, it will be "running on the grid," which essentially means buying electricity from another source - an expensive situation.

"Other options are solar, burning waste, nuclear power, and a lot of them have pros or cons," Agrusa said. "I think I still need to do research before I'm sold on any of them."

Agrusa said he had personal knowledge about solar energy from his work with UF toward creating a sustainable campus, when the school considered putting solar panels on the recreation fields.

"Another thing that's still out there is trying to work on a partnership with the city for people to provide their own solar panels. Citizens will purchase solar panels for themselves, and at the end of the day they're actually saving money."

Hawkins said he found himself woefully uneducated about energy options and solutions, so when he decided to run for City Commission his first task was to sit down with a local expert.

"What I learned was there's not any easy solution out there," Hawkins said. "What that means is everything needs to be on the table."

Hawkins said he envisions the energy demand being met with incremental plans, rather than another "Deerhaven project that would last 20 years."

"We're not going to get the same capacity, but we're going to need a lot of small projects," he said. "The big thing we need to do is focus on conservation."

Three candidates are vying for Braddy's District 2 seat, which is elected by voting precincts in the northwest part of town. The candidates are Santa Fe Community College professor Lauren Poe, 36; Bryan Harman, 32, who plans to return to a marketing job after the election; and Bonnie Mott, 58, president of Prudential Preferred Properties realty company.

"I'm very happy with the direction the commission has taken with moving away from a coal plant," Poe said. "Bio-mass is a good interim solution, but we must start focusing on renewable energy ... and the technology for those are just coming into economic viability."

Mott said she also was glad the city moved away from coal.

"Even though bio-mass isn't great - because there are still issues with burning carcinogens - there are reusable sources such as wood."

Her concern with burning wood is the fuel it would take to bring the necessary logs to the plant. She offered the possible solution of using trains to deliver the wood.

Harman said his agenda with energy is to make certain it's affordable for families.

"I'd redo GRU's rate system so it's not punitive to families," Harman said.

In District 3, which covers southwest Gainesville, the incumbent Jack Donovan, 63, is running for re-election against Armando Grundy, 28, who works for a local retail store, and Christopher Salazar, 20, who works for The Limited clothing store in The Oaks Mall.

Donovan said when he took office three years ago he immediately got involved in the discussion on whether or not to build a new coal power plant. "I took a stand against that and then we followed this with the logical segue of directing GRU to develop as much of a demand-side policy as necessary."

Demand policies push to encourage energy efficiency by the public through various incentives and rate increases.

Grundy said he doesn't think conservation will be enough to meet future energy needs, but his first order of action would be to roll back the recent rate increase in utilities.

"It hurts many citizens, but especially those of us that are working paycheck to paycheck and can't afford it."

Grundy said if the rate didn't get rolled back he would consider taking a legal stand.

"GRU did not seek the approval of the Public Service Commission, which makes that increase illegal."

However, because GRU is a publicly owned energy company, it isn't required by law to get approval by the Public Service Commission.

Salazar said he would ensure that the federal, state and GRU rebate systems for energy efficiency would stay in place.

"I think one thing we should be looking at doing is setting aside money to put solar panels on all of the city buildings."

Megan Rolland can be reached at 338-3104 or megan.rolland@ gvillesun.com.

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