Biomass plant has started running, generating some power
Published: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 7:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 7:22 p.m.
The hotly debated biomass power plant is up and running.
About 2½ years after construction started, the 100-megawatt Gainesville Renewable Energy Center began generating electricity shortly before 5 p.m. on Aug. 16.
That first day, the plant operated at a fraction of capacity and generated about 15 megawatts of power for the Gainesville Regional Utilities electric grid. Over the past week, the output has varied and the plant has, at times, run at its full 100-megawatt capacity.
Still to come are a series of performance tests and air emissions tests for the Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, GREC Chief Financial Officer Al Morales said.
The next step is a 500-hour endurance test with the plant running close to capacity.
The testing and commissioning process will continue for months, with the plant expected to be commercially operational in mid-November.
"We're not considering it a huge milestone," Morales said of the plant's startup. "We're just considering it one more step in what we're doing."
Right now, about 62,000 tons of fuel is on site. The wood chips, primarily waste from logging operations and mill residue, stand in hills about 30 to 40 feet tall. A large rotating, steel arm known as a stacker spews out the chips and forms the piles.
Depending on the pile, either a worker driving a chip dozer or an automatic conveyer belt loads the wood into a system of gleaming steel conveyor belts. The last and longest of those belts stretches across the sky for the length of two football fields and up to the power plant.
At its highest point, the exhaust stack for the boiler, the plant will reach a height of 230 feet. The biomass plant includes about 8,600 tons of steel, 22,000 cubic yards of concrete, 2,600 tons of rebar, 2 million feet of wire and 25,000 feet of pipe.
The plant has started generating power while continued concern and opposition remain over the terms of the city's 30-year contract to purchase all the plant's output at a price of about $130 per megawatt-hour.
There's continued community debate over the increase in electric rates that already rank toward the high end in the state versus potential long-term benefits of more fuel diversity for GRU, a renewable energy source and price stability.
Mayor Ed Braddy said his criticism of GREC has focused on the contract, not the power plant itself.
"My concern is with the contractual matters, not the operational matters — and those seem to be going as planned," Braddy said.
The city will not begin paying the contractual rate for electricity until the plant is commercially operational.
Until then, the price will be far more modest, approximately $38 a megawatt-hour, said John Stanton, the GRU assistant general manager for energy supply.
That lower price will cover fuel costs and variable operations and maintenance costs but not more substantial costs such as construction debt.
Stanton said GRU plans to use the plant to meet its year-round base load demand.
"We expect it to be part of our everyday generating mix," he said.