NAACP addresses GRU rate increase

Culprit is controversial biomass plant

GRU general manager Robert Hunzinger addresses residents at a meeting Sunday sponsored by the Alachua County branch NAACP.

ALEX M. SANCHEZ/ Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:48 p.m.

Executives from Gainesville Regional Utilities urged residents to practice energy conservation and take advantage of cost-saving programs GRU offers to help offset a planned increase in utility rates when the controversial biomass plant becomes fully operational within the next two months.

Led by Robert Hunzinger, GRU general manager, executives from GRU discussed some of those cost-savings measures and other issues regarding the biomass plant Sunday evening at a community meeting hosted by the Alachua County branch NAACP and held at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church.

After Hunzinger gave a nearly 30-minute overview on the current status of the biomass plant and the forthcoming utility rate increase, he and the other GRU executives answered written questions from the audience of close to 30 residents.

The residential customer rate increase for the next fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2014, will increase the average monthly rate of electricity from $127.67 per 1,000 kilowatts used each month to $141.15 per 1,000 kilowatts, an increase of $13.48 each month. And when costs for natural gas, water and wastewater are added in, the average bill will increase from $232.40 to $249.33, for a total increase of $16.93 each month.

In addition to those increases, Hunzinger said rates will be expected to increase by $8 the second year and $1 or $2 more the third year.

"Those are dependent on a number of things," said Hunzinger, "the price of coal, the price of gas, things like that, that are not in our control."

Charles S. Chestnut III, a lifetime member of the NAACP who moderated the meeting, read the first question, which asked what kind of public education campaign GRU will run to inform customers about ways to save on their utility bills.

Hunzinger's reply was, "we have historically had a pretty robust energy conservation program, and during this past budget year, some of those programs did get reduced, but we tried to keep in tack many of those programs that help our residential customers." He then invited Kathy Viehe, GRU assistant general manager for customer service, to the podium to further answer the question.

Viehe said GRU routinely goes into the community to take part in community meetings, such as the one Sunday, adding that turnout is often very dismal. She said GRU also relies on a lot of mass media advertising campaigns to get the word out about its energy conservation programs.

"We are trying to get people interested in energy efficiency and we try to drive them to our website, where we have a lot more information concerning the rebates that we provide," Viehe said.

She also highlighted the GRU Low-Income Energy Efficiency, or LEEP, program, which is designed to help homeowners who need help with "getting their homes fixed up so they can be more efficient." Applications are being accepted now for the LEEP program. Stop by GRU at 304 SE 4th Ave. or call 352-334-3434.

Viehe also talked about an insert GRU is including with utility bills this month that explains the rate increase and offers tips on how to reduce energy costs.

Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County branch NAACP, asked several questions of her own, one of which was what will happen if the city and GRU do not find a buyer for 50 percent of the fuel generated at the biomass plant.

Hunzinger explained that when the City Commission approved the biomass contract in 2009, it assumed that at least for a while, it would be able to sell half of the fuel generated at the plant. He said although there have been talks with potential buyers, no deals have been reached. However, he said there are still proposals on the board with the city of Winter Park near Orlando, Duke Energy and the University of Florida.

When asked by Foxx how the excess energy will be paid for in the worst-case scenario that there are no buyers for the fuel, Hunzinger's answer was that GRU has already budgeted for that scenario for the next two years.

Gainesville City Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls followed up on Hunzinger's answer by saying that if buyers are found for the fuel, that will allow GRU to pass savings on to ratepayers.

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