Public Power Magazine

A Greener Gainesville


From the June 2011 issue (Vol. 69, No. 4) of Public Power

Originally published June 1, 2011

By Alice Clamp
June 1, 2011
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Gainesville Regional Utilities' 100-MW biomass plant, seen here in an artist's rendering in its location across from GRU's Deerhaven Generating Station, is expected to go on line in late 2013. All photos courtesy of GRU. 

The city of Gainesville, Fla., set a goal in 2005: reduce carbon emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2013.

To help it reach that goal, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) has pledged to increase energy efficiency, improve power generation efficiency and boost the use of renewable energy.

GRU already gets some electricity from landfill gas and photovoltaics. Soon, it will add biomass to its fuel mix.

In 2009, the utility signed a long-term contract to buy the power produced by a biomass plant. The 100-MW plant, to be located on GRU’s Deerhaven Generating Station property, will be built, owned and operated by Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, a project company of American Renewables.

The project offers several benefits, said Ed Regan, GRU assistant general manager for  strategic planning. One is improved reliability. The biomass plant will provide baseload power, helping to ensure that GRU doesn’t need to buy high-cost power in the event of an unplanned outage at its Deerfield Unit 2 facility.

Another benefit is fuel diversity. Currently, GRU gets roughly 59 percent of its electricity from coal, 19 percent from natural gas, 15 percent from power purchases, 5 percent from nuclear energy and only 1 percent from renewables. When the biomass plant comes on line in late 2013, renewables will account for nearly 22 percent of the utility’s fuel mix. Photovoltaics and landfill gas will account for roughly 3 percent, and biomass for roughly 18 percent.

The biomass plant also will offer GRU customers long-term savings. “When the plant comes on line, it will be more expensive than natural gas-fired power generation” said GRU’s Regan. “But because most of our contract price is fixed for 30 years, that relative cost will diminish compared with other fuel sources.” After approximately 10 years, the plant will be less costly than natural gas-fired generation, he said. In fact, it is the lowest cost long-term alternative for dispatchable baseload energy, as a new coal plant is not an option in Florida.

There’s another major benefit associated with the biomass plant—it will be an environmentally responsible source of power. Biomass is considered carbon neutral because it releases the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere that would be released naturally if the wood waste were left to decompose. Moreover, much of the wood waste that will fuel the plant is now burned openly in fields, with no air quality controls.

Working with stakeholders. GRU and the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) have kept stakeholders—the city’s commissioners, GRU customers, state agencies and the public—informed about the project from the outset. The utility has posted extensive, detailed information about the project on its website.

For at least the past six years, GRU has been involved in a public process, said Regan. “I’ve talked with numerous civic groups, and The Gainesville Sun and local TV stations have provided significant coverage every step of the way.” That coverage has been “very fair,” he said, and “mainly positive.” In an editorial, The Sun recommended that the City Commission approve the project, which the paper said should move forward. Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the 30-year power purchase contract in May 2009.

Fuel source. On a per capita basis, Florida generates more biomass than any other state. It also follows strict forest management practices. In addition to the unique minimum sustainability standards for forest-produced biomass that are included in the power purchase agreement, GRU decided to raise the bar even higher. It developed a forest-stewardship incentive program to encourage suppliers to exceed the minimum standards.

“Not all stewardship programs are equal,” said American Renewables’ Josh Levine, the GREC project manager. “GRU picked two that are on a very progressive scale.” Under the programs, a third party must certify that suppliers are using management practices that encourage biodiversity above and beyond current common practices, he said.

Among the forest products the biomass plant will use are tree tops and limbs left after traditional logging operations. Another fuel source will be the residue from forest thinning, which culls less desirable trees and encourages the growth of those remaining. “We will help to create a market for the material produced by thinning which currently does not exist,” said Levine.

A second fuel category is mill residues—end cuts, shavings—that can be chipped or ground.

In addition to forest-derived and mill residues, the plant will use urban wood waste. That urban material does not include any municipal solid waste, construction and demolition debris or treated wood of any kind, Levine pointed out. “We’ll use trimmings from urban woods, right-of-way and land clearing debris and yard cleanup material as well as material generated by tree surgeons,” he said.

GREC has signed a 10-year contract with Wood Resource Recovery, an urban wood waste recycling company, to supply much of the urban material needed for the plant.

“We expect forest-derived material to account for 50 to 60 percent of the fuel, urban wood waste to account for 35 to 45 percent and mill residues less than 10 percent,” said Levine.

All biomass material will be chipped or ground by suppliers in the field or at concentration yards and then transported to the plant by truck. Levine estimates annual biomass consumption by the plant at 1 million green tons.

Early construction activities for the facility began in late March and the official groundbreaking for the plant, which will cost an estimated $450 million, is slated for early summer this year. Commercial operation is expected in the early fall of 2013.

Permitting. Start to finish, plant construction is expected to take 32 months. Obtaining the various approvals and permits required for the biomass plant took nearly as long. The list of local, regional, state and federal agencies involved in the process is daunting. It includes the Florida Public Service Commission, six Florida departments—Environmental Protection, Health, Agriculture, Community Affairs, State, and Transportation—the North Florida Regional Planning Council, the Suwannee River Water Management District, the city of Gainesville, Alachua County and the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

Final approval entailed receiving three major documents: a certificate of need determination, site certification and a PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) permit.

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"Not all stewardship programs are equal," said American Renewables' Josh Levine, the GREC project manager . 

Certificate of need determination. All proposed power plants in Florida must obtain a certificate of need determination from the state Public Service Commission. If the PSC determines that the power plant is needed and is in the best interests of the public, it will grant the certificate.

GRU and GREC filed their application for the biomass plant in September 2009. The PSC approved the application at the end of May 2010 and issued the final written order the following month. The final order was appealed by two intervenors in July 2010, but the appeal was later dismissed.

Site certification. Under Florida’s Power Plant Siting Act, a site certification application to build a power plant must be submitted to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. This application serves as the permit application for all state, regional and local approvals.

GRU and GREC received the department’s project analysis report in July 2010, which recommended site certification for the project. “No local, regional or state agency failed to recommend the project,” said GREC’s Levine. The public had 30 days from the report’s release to request a formal hearing, and on the 30th day, one local citizen filed a petition. At a four-day hearing in August, GRU and GREC discussed the project and why they believed it met all regulations. Of the 29 members of the public who spoke about the project, 28 strongly supported it. After the issuance of a positive recommendation from the administrative law judge, Florida’s governor and cabinet voted to grant GREC the site certification in early December 2010 and the final order was issued the following week. The final order was appealed by the one petitioner in January 2011, but the appeal was later dismissed.

PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) permit. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft PDS permit in July 2010. As with the site certification, members of the public had 30 days from issuance to comment. On the 30th day, the permit was opposed by five petitioners. At a hearing in late September, GREC provided information from toxicology and human health risk assessors on how the plant would actually improve the regional air quality and reduce dioxin, mercury and particulate matter emissions in the north central Florida region due to the reduction in the current practices of open burning of logging residues.

GREC received the PSD air permit in December 2010, said Levine. The final order was appealed by the five petitioners in January 2011, but the appeal was later dismissed.

All of GREC’s permits to construct and operate the facility are now final and unappealable.

Controlling emissions. Asked about emission controls for the biomass plant, Levine said the facility would include equipment to control nitrogen oxides (NOx) and the small amount of sulfur dioxide produced by burning biomass. The facility’s boiler will employ bubbling fluidized-bed technology, which is very efficient at combusting biomass. To further reduce NOx emissions, the plant will use selective catalytic reduction. Sorbants will be injected to ensure that any trace mercury and dioxins are removed. A baghouse will address particulate emissions. Finally, a continuous monitoring system will track emission levels to ensure all requirements are met.

“The biomass plant will use much the same technology as a coal-fired plant,” said Levine. “But it won’t have a scrubber—a flue gas desulfurization system—because biomass is very low in sulfur.”

There is strong and widespread support for the project, said GRU’s Regan. He mentioned some of the many groups and organizations in favor, which include the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Florida Forestry Association, the Florida Farm Bureau, the Florida Municipal Electric Association and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

For more on current efforts in biomass, check out PublicPowerMedia.org.

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June 2011
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