GRU: Possible that no coal will come from mountaintops


A piece of coal is shown at Gainesville Regional Utilities' Deerhaven Power Plant on U.S. 441 in Gainesville, Fla., Feb. 24, 2005.

Gainesville Sun file photo
Published: Monday, January 23, 2012 at 10:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 at 10:07 p.m.

Without a policy dictating the city not buy coal mined from — and decimating — Appalachian peaks, Gainesville Regional Utilities officials are optimistic that none of the coal they will buy this year will be taken from the mountaintops.

At a meeting Monday, the city commissioners making up the three-member Regional Utilities Committee discussed a proposal from residents to prohibit GRU from buying mountaintop-removed coal.

GRU officials said they currently work without a policy directive, and do not necessarily care where the coal comes from, but have managed to decrease their share of mountaintop coal simply because of market forces.

"Without doing anything overt, I think we have gone from 60 percent to somewhere on the nature of 15 percent, and that was completely ignoring whether it was mountaintop or not, just on economics," said Thomas Foxx, GRU's fuels manager.

Foxx and his staff are still negotiating two of the three contracts they will sign to buy coal for the year, but he said he thinks the coal from the three companies will all come from what are known as deep mines, located below the surface of the mountains in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

"We are reasonably agnostic on where the coal comes from, other than we prefer deep-mine coal for performance reasons," said John Stanton, GRU's general manager for energy supply.

With prices for natural gas at incredible lows, the utility is buying as much of that right now as possible, Stanton said, telling the commissioners that the utility's 222-megawatt, coal-fired Deerhaven Unit 2 plant was shut down for a seven-day stretch recently so GRU could burn natural gas instead.

"We are burning as much gas as we can in order to take advantage of that," Stanton said of the prices.

Foxx said the utility will begin to test non-mountaintop coal taken from the Illinois Basin this year and will potentially add it to the mix depending on how it performs.

Foxx explained that coal from different parts of the country — or even different parts of a mountain — can have different sulfur dioxide contents, and its efficiency can be affected. He said Deerhaven could likely only handle a mixture in which 30 percent comes from the Illinois Basin.

"Ultimately, we want to get the best deal we can to the lowest risk to the unit and the system," he said.

Commissioner Susan Bottcher, the chairwoman of the committee, has expressed interest in a formal policy barring mountaintop coal, and GRU staff will give an update on the Illinois Basin testing later in the year.

Two environmental activists, Jason Fults and Rob Brinkman, who have been pursuing the ban, attended the meeting and seemed happy to see some progress.

"I do see movement in the process," Brinkman said. "I want to thank the city commissioners for being concerned about this."

Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or chad.smith@gvillesun.com.

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