At GRU, so much has changed in a century
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 9:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 9:51 p.m.
Gainesville Regional Utilities officials gathered to celebrate the utility's 100-year anniversary at the power plant downtown on Thursday, a century after a $7.30 dispute between the city and a private power provider led to a blackout and sparked the creation of a municipal utility later that year.
GRU through the years
1891: City purchases Boulware Springs to provide water to residents.
1912: City establishes its own electric system following a dispute with a private electric company over $7.30.
1914: City completes its first electric plant, now the John R. Kelley Generating Station downtown.
1930: The Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant opens.
1949: Gainesville becomes the first city in Florida to fluoridate its water.
1972: A second power plant, Deerhaven Unit 1, opens.
1979: City names the utilities division Gainesville Regional Utilities.
1981: Deerhaven Unit 2, originally slated to burn oil, opens as a coal-fired plant as a result of the oil embargo of the 1970s.
1990: City purchases Gainesville Gas Co. and starts providing natural gas service.
1996: City adds GRUCom, a telecommunications service.
2003: GRU begins selling customers reclaimed water for irrigation, industrial and other uses.
2009: GRU becomes first utility in the U.S. to offer a solar feed-in tariff, paying property owners for power produced by their photovoltaic systems.
2009: GRU signs 30-year contract to purchase biomass energy from the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center.
Source: Gainesville Regional Utilities.
Two years later, the first iteration of the downtown plant, now called the John R. Kelly Generating Station after a former utilities director, was built to serve the city's population of some 6,000 residents.
"The citizens said, ‘Well, we can do better,' so they organized a grassroots campaign and ultimately built a generating unit," GRU General Manager Bob Hunzinger said at Thursday's reception, which kicked off the 100-year anniversary celebration.
Since 1914, the system has grown from producing 350 kilowatts of power to more than 600 megawatts, a more than 1,700 percent increase — all to fuel the various electronic revolutions over the past century.
Kathy Viehe, GRU's assistant general manager for customer support services, said in the beginning, the function was basically to keep the streetlights on.
Later, electricity became essential in the home for lighting and cooking. Then came radios, TVs, vacuum cleaners.
In 1996, GRU started its own telecommunications business, GRUCom, selling Internet access in the age of personal computers, video-game consoles and hand-held devices that have to be charged daily.
In the 1950s and '60s, Viehe said, there wasn't an emphasis on conservation. Now, while electronics are ubiquitous, there are mounting concerns over burning fossil fuels and simply using — and paying for — unneeded energy.
Viehe said the yearlong celebration of the utility's anniversary is intended to "recognize what's been accomplished" by the hundreds of employees the utility has employed over the decades.
Raleigh Alligood spent the better part of four of those decades at GRU, starting out as a lineman and retiring as the manager of the gas and electric measurement division.
"Anyone who wants to be in utility work, you don't work 8 to 5," Alligood said. "Storms, thunderstorms, you do whatever you have to do."
After retiring, he came back in 2004, when two approaching hurricanes created all-hands-on-deck situations for GRU and for Alligood, whose daughter Jennifer Hunt is now the chief financial officer at GRU.
"It was long days, but that was your job," he said. "What you put into it is what you get out of it."
John "Fred" Hancock, who retired after 38 years at the utility in 1997 as the assistant general manager for energy supply, remembered one of the most difficult points during his career was the energy crisis in the 1970s.
The second unit at the Deerhaven Generating Station on U.S. 441 was being built as an oil- or gas-burning plant, but the federal government forced GRU to switch to coal because of the crisis.
Hancock said the original cost between $50 million and $60 million ballooned to $160 million.
"The city was faced with a pretty big problem," he said. "Financing something that big back then was going to be a major undertaking."
There is a similar discussion going on now about GRU, through its board of directors, the Gainesville City Commission, deciding to sign a 30-year contract in 2009 to purchase biomass power.
The privately owned Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, which will be fueled by wood chips from a roughly 70-mile radius around the city, will sell all its output to the utility for the next three decades, raising rates in the short term, city officials have said.
On Thursday, GRU officials, five city commissioners and Florida Public Service Commissioner Art Graham toured the biomass plant, which is expected to go online in 2013.
Hundreds of workers and dozens of construction vehicles were buzzing around the 131-acre site north of Deerhaven, with the 1 million-gallon water tower nearly complete and the infrastructure for the boiler taking shape.
"It works," Graham said of biomass in an interview. "There's no doubt about it."
Whether the contract is good for the city, Graham said he didn't know enough about it to say.
"Nobody likes a rate increase," he offered. "That's the long and the short of it."
Graham — who was not on the PSC, which regulates utilities across Florida, when it voted, 3-2, in favor of GREC — said the PSC doesn't have a say over rates at municipal utilities like GRU.
"You guys control your own destiny," he said.
Graham said more than 95 percent of GRU's fuel comes from outside the state, to say nothing of the jobs that money which leaves Florida creates.
"How important is it?" he said rhetorically.
City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins, speaking at the reception at the Kelly plant, said Gainesville's commitment to its own utility system was on display in a 1905 vote in which residents approved a measure to issue debt in order to pay for a sewer system.
"It really was a hallmark in our history because it represented citizens taking responsibility for their own needs and making an investment with their own financial resources in their bright future," Hawkins said, noting the utility has pumped more than $700 million back into the city in its history. "That has yielded tremendous results."
Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.