Gainesville Renewable Energy Center creates new opportunities

This post was co-authored by John Bonitz

Late last month opponents of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center were heard by an administrative law judge. That’s an opening sentence that’s sure to thrill, right? But it was a watershed event because it underscores the extensive public input and debate this project has received. Moreover, the hearing allowed the facts of the project to be conveyed again, in case folks missed them before. (To review these facts, visit and search for docket # 09-006641EPP.)

It was these same facts – back in April of this year – that led SACE to decide to support this project. And the same facts that led us to again support the project in this administrative hearing. Recently, we received some inquiries and some jabs by fellow environmentalists calling SACE’s support for biomass a “knee-jerk response”. We’d like to set the record straight.

Artists rendering of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, a 100MW biopower project by the Gainesville Regional Utility.

Artists rendering of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, a 100MW biopower project by the Gainesville Regional Utility.

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy supports the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) / Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) project under development by American Renewables in Florida. GREC will be a 100-MW electric generation facility fueled by renewable biomass — which is very different from an incinerator. GREC will improve the utility’s reliability by diversifying its energy sources, providing long-term cost stability to customers and generating economic development in the Gainesville region. GREC was first approved in April 2010 by the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC). The project was granted draft air permits by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on July 14, 2010. On August 26, 2010, a hearing was held in response to an appeal of the project’s Site Certification.

We support this project based on a thorough review — examining feedstock supply, technology, climate benefits, emissions, local need, consumer impact and economics, among other things. This project is like no other project that we have seen in the Southeast and we believe that it has set important goals to ensure its benefits to the community and environment (see below).

To clarify, SACE is not providing “automatic” support for biomass. We believe that each project MUST be evaluated on a case by case basis. We have only engaged in projects that we believe have strong merit — environmentally. Moreover, we have been strong supporters in the Southeast and in Washington advocating for the need for smart bioenergy — with strong sustainability parameters defined and air quality regulations met.

Biomass electricity is a crucial tool – along with energy efficiency, solar, wind and other renewable resources – for reliably meeting our energy needs while fighting climate change.

We certainly believe that there can and will be bad projects proposed and we are very concerned about how these might affect our environment — locally, nationally, and globally. However, we do believe that biomass electricity is a crucial tool – along with energy efficiency, solar, wind and other renewable resources – for reliably meeting our energy needs while fighting climate change. And, we think that the proposed Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) biopower project has demonstrated a clear understanding of these challenges and is leading the region in providing solutions.

SACE believes there is an ecological, environmental, and ethical imperative to keep forests as forests.

SACE believes there is an ecological, environmental, and ethical imperative to keep forests as forests.

Specifically, GRU’s project has implemented unprecedented requirements to ensure their supplies of woody biomass are sustainable and as environmentally benign as possible. For example, GRU has authorized GREC to make incentive payments for woody biomass harvested either with forest stewardship planning or under Forest Stewardship Council’s highly respected FSC certification. This approach will encourage private woodland owners to do the right thing by going beyond the usual forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs).

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures measures of sustainability in forestry.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is one means of ensuring efforts towards sustainability in forestry. © 1996 FSC, FSC-US-0171

We also believe there is an ecological, environmental, and ethical imperative to keep forests as forests. As experts have pointed out, by providing a new market for Florida’s forest resources and by requiring harvested stands to be replanted, GREC will help keep forests forested. Keeping forests as forests will also increase protection of wildlife. More importantly, with these requirements, this project will also help stem sprawling commercial and residential development and the associated carbon debt that comes with permanent land-use changes — the worst-case scenario for the planet. Further, by utilizing land-clearing debris, diseased/infected trees, storm debris and other wood wastes, this project further maximizes the environmental benefits of the project by diverting materials away from landfill or open-burning — two fates which both release more greenhouse gases than biopower.

Further, GREC’s combination of technologies (using fluidized bed combustion, selective catalytic reduction, and filtering technology) ensures it will have lower emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter. GRU has also explicitly prohibited the new biopower plant from consuming tires or treated wood, which we applaud. It is overwhelmingly preferable to the 220 MW coal-fired power plant that GRU had hoped to build only 4 years ago (and which SACE opposed).

Finally, we must emphasize that Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a strong supporter of energy efficiency as the first priority in creating a clean energy economy. For the past two years, SACE and its advocacy partner Natural Resources Defense Council have been fighting for strong and swift increases in energy efficiency programs by Florida’s largest utilities. We have been very impressed with the progress made by GRU in energy efficiency, and we praise them for their exceptional leadership. Sadly, while some Florida organizations have joined us in pushing for strong statewide energy efficiency goals, many who are opposing the GRU biopower plant have been absent from the fight for energy efficiency. We find it interesting that others who fought coal plants also support the GRU biopower project. Furthermore, SACE has been a leader in opposing nuclear power, which is so costly that it makes it difficult to justify investing in less costly, less risky and cleaner resources. We will continue to take a deep look at every energy resource option put forward.

We can accomplish a lot by supporting sustainable solutions that move us away from the dangers presented by the status quo.

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UPDATE: Response to feedback (10/04/10)

Did SACE consider whether the plant is needed?

Only a few years ago, GRU determined that they needed a 200 MW coal fired power plant. With this recession, outside observers are reasonably skeptical about the need for a 200 MW power plant.

GRU’s 100 MW biomass power plant represents half the additional capacity that the prior coal plant would have provided. As we have seen, project development time lines are long (nearly a decade from the original concept in this case), and GRU feels it cannot wait for demand to appear before deciding to build.

SACE often takes a very critical look at the question of need when we are reviewing a large power plant proposal. However, compared to the 500 – 1,200 MW coal and nuclear power plants that we look at, it can be more difficult to say if a 100 MW power plant is needed (Florida’s unique “non-market” for electricity compounds the difficulty).

One factor we always review is how the decision to build the power plant was made, and in this case we saw ample evidence that it was a transparent and evidence-based process that included Gainesville (its city commission), its electric utility, and the Florida Public Service Commission. Furthermore, as discussed in the original post, alternative resources (energy efficiency and other renewables) were given full consideration in Gainesville’s planning.

Most importantly, experts such as James Hansen have warned us that we must shut-down coal-fired power plants as rapidly as possible. Even if we do not see anticipated demand growth, the 100 MW GREC biopower project allows 100 MW of central-Florida coal-fired electricity to be retired sooner than it might otherwise.

Why did SACE endorse such a large biopower plant?

Map showing 75 mile radius biomass supply area for GREC.  Source: “Summary Presentation of GREC Biomass Assessment,” Richard M. Schroeder, BioResource Management, Inc., March 2010.

Map showing 75 mile radius biomass supply area for GREC. Source: “Summary Presentation of GREC Biomass Assessment,” Richard M. Schroeder, BioResource Management, Inc., March 2010.

In vicinity of any biomass plant, the question of feasible biomass supply is a serious one. Even more so with the 100MW GREC project, a greenfield project of unprecedented scale. This scale was indeed our greatest concern during our evaluation process.

We are not aware of other existing projects this large, consuming only woody biomass, in the Southeast. The only plant that comes close is the 140MW Okeelanta Cogeneration Facility in South Bay, FL, which consumes bagasse during the sugar cane harvest season, and clean urban wood waste during the off-season. The other comparison is the proposed 96MW Plant Mitchell repowering with biomass, which we also supported.

While we were initially skeptical, we reviewed the GREC biomass supply analyses and the sustainability plans. After careful consideration, within the context of increasingly sophisticated state-wide supply studies, it is clear to us that sustainable resources are available.

First, we were convinced that GREC would be able to obtain a sustainable supply of 1 million tons of woody biomass per year, relying on three major resources:

  • forest-derived woody biomass,
  • urban wood waste, and
  • mill residues.

The GREC Biomass Assessment by BioResource Management (BRM), demonstrated that there was adequate supply of these resources. We were convinced both by the details of the analysis of these outside experts and because we’ve come to know BRM as smart and conscientious.

Table from BRM report: "Potential Biomass Feedstock Generated in GREC Supply Area"

Table from BRM report: “Potential Biomass Feedstock Generated in GREC Supply Area”

As illustrated in the table at right, BRM found more than 5 times the biomass needed for this plant within feasible hauling distance. That’s more than abundant biomass for GREC, and supported the findings of the earlier, less detailed supply analysis done in 2003.

To put this plan into action, GRU has entered into a long-term supply contract for urban-sourced woody biomass.

A risk to any biopower plant is competition for resources. BRM considered the demand of other industries that are currently consuming some of this biomass. The biggest industrial consumers of this biomass are pulp mills in north Florida and South Georgia, outside the GREC supply area. Relative to many areas in the Southeast, the Gainesville region has fewer such industries and market demand for biomass.

The economics of these supplies were also carefully considered, and the biomass resources were projected to be available within reasonable cost ranges at reasonable transportation costs.

Why is SACE enthusiastic about the GREC project?

As discussed above, the GREC project is the first biopower project to embrace FSC certification and stewardship planning. SACE has concluded, based on an ongoing review of the latest data on biomass resources and their environmental implications, that waste and residues biomass sources are clearly supported by science. Until a strong regulatory framework is established, we depend on guiding principles for the sustainable harvest of woody biomass that have been developed by forestry scientists, several of which are required in GRU’s contract with the developer of GREC. This sets an important benchmark for the Southeast and will help us challenge other biopower developers to go at least as far beyond what is required by law to ensure a sustainable future for our region.

This response was written by John Bonitz with editing assistance from John Wilson.

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On the subject of Gainesville Regional Utilities, I am working with the “official” US Energy Information Administration database and just noticed that GRU reported over 1.1% energy savings for 2008. If maintained over ten years, this would mean a reduction in energy use by over 11%.

However, GRU is on track to achieve *more* than that. The 1.1% energy savings represents a 50% increase over 2007. Across the Southeast, no other utility even comes close, with GRU’s impacts representing 3-10 times the impact of other utilities with significant programs. This really solidifies our recognition of GRU as the only utility in the Southeast that has a demonstrated national leadership in helping its customers save energy cost-effectively.

Comment by John D. Wilson on September 20, 2010 9:26 am

from articles i’ve read, it seems the gainesville project is a both too expensive and too premature.

here is discussion about its need date of 2023

i’ve seen reports on wood pellets being more expensive than coal, on a btu basis, or over $100/ton.

imho – i would rather see gainesville advance its solar pv initiatives

Comment by paul messerschmidt on September 21, 2010 1:26 pm

I fully support the bio-mass facility with three major reservations.
First – assuming for efficiency’s sake that it runs at near 100% capacity, it’s just too big by at least 50%. I have heard that it will take over 150 semi loads daily to feed this beast whatever they can shove into it to burn during the day .
Secondly, consequently the roads and neighborhoods leading to Deerhaven will suffer badly with these mostly unregulated weight loads traveling locally. Presently our coal plant uses rail delivery for coal (or Nat Gas) which has more BTU’s per ton than trees and zero impact on local roads.
Thirdly, has anyone done even a rough study of the distance we will have to go to supply this thing after the first year or so and before we completely defoliate the areas around the plant. Our current daily stream of yard waste either doesn’t qualify (leaves) and or isn’t sufficient enough by a large amount. Part of the plants planned efficiency depends on the geographical convience of the fuel supply. If the value of this fuel due to distance considerations reaches a tipping point (esp w/$200 a barrel oil for diesel trucks) many areas within a radius of maybe 50 miles of the plant may be deforested due to simple commodities economics, or not really look or function like a forest eco system due to premature harvesting techniques.
I fear that not too far down the road we will be forced to burn other sources of fuel, like gasp paper waste products and that this has been in the cards all along.
Please reconsider the size of this otherwise prudent new neighbor we will be married to but will have largely given our regulatory rights away to.

Comment by Ed Clark on September 22, 2010 9:53 am

To Paul Messerschmidt and Ed Clark, thanks for the comments. We hope we’ve adequately addressed the questions of need and supply with the UPDATE above.

Re: the questions of truck traffic
Truck traffic is something our clean diesel program seeks to address. We urge biopower developers to implement idle reduction practices, to install particulate filters and other control devices on their trucks, and to think comprehensively about reducing road-traffic (such as with rail delivery).

Re: wood pellets
Pelletized wood is irrelevant in this situation. We don’t know of any US utilities that are considering consuming pellets. Wood chips, bark, sawdust, etc., is what utilities and biopower producers are currently consuming. Wood pellets are expensive because they are a value-added biomass source, heat-treated to be drier than wood chips. Other than a small volume of wood pellets sold in the Northeastern US for home heating, most wood pellets are exported to Europe (as stated above).

Re: the preference for solar
Yes, we’d prefer more solar, too. This is why we cheer and applaud GRU for their FIT programs incentivizing solar installations in their service area. And why we continue to promote solar:
Because, as more solar-power is installed, manufacturing becomes more efficient, and prices fall. Until solar power is competitive with new coal, we need all the renewable energy and energy efficiency we can get, including smart, sustainable biopower.

Comment by John Bonitz on October 6, 2010 3:38 pm

Pelletized wood is irrelevant? The European market for biofuel is rapidly expanding, and exports of wood pellets from the Southeastern US are expected to skyrocket as more large scale biomass-burning power plants come on line. Plum Creek, a company with 590,000 acres of timber land in Florida is setting up an “inland port” operation in Lake City that will expedite exports from N. Florida. The idea that the so-called “wood waste” needed to feed GREC’s massive 100Mw appetite for 30 years will be available locally at an economical price is delusional.

Comment by Michael Canney on October 11, 2010 11:49 am

Michael as usual you are all about repeating information incorrectly. I was the person that brought European development of pellets into topic.
Pellets are not chemically suited to this plant, not as fuel/burn source, nor are they particularly good choice for a plant of this magnitude for many other reasons. Since I spend an enormous amount of time in Europe (not like you “on the Google”) keeping up with renewable efforts, it is glaringly evident your facts are missing. BioMass is so easily provided for that a country like the Netherlands with little natural land mass is able to practice forest conservation so sucessfully that BioMass has become a principle source of sustainable, clean energy throughout ALL of Europe. So Little Land – it works too. Secondly, if you knew anything about Europe, the Dutch are about the finest financiers the world has seen. For them, it is second nature to see an opportunity and invest – period. Canada is all about providing also, you can be sure they won’t destroy their nest egg either.
So what about yr big, scary port? Keeping forests healthy can be a financial winner.
The beauty of GREC is that farmers already in existence will be compensated or penalized for keeping healthy growth forests. Perhaps you need the aerial birds eye view, Fla is solidly awash coast to coast with tree plantations – from Orlando North. No Fla is finally caught on that development is lousy basis for economy. Additionally the Southeast US has been tree farm country forever. We are the paper producing capital of the US. Even with your scary fantasy’s it shall remain so – unless of course we do nothing about climate change and creating renewable energy.

Also most of Europe is without the land mass we have, yet they are happily land conserving their way to clean renewable affordable energy, and keeping beautiful forests in tact. This is a fact that hysterical radical extremists can’t deny.

The final point is, countries that are serious about addressing climate change are acting in the best accordance with doing right by the earth and her limited resources. They do not allow environmental extremists to muddy the waters with hysterical opinions. This is about science and ethics, not fame seeking extremists. You are wrong on all points.

Comment by Pamela Mincey on November 3, 2010 10:52 am

One last point, like most folks I am serious about addressing climate change – as Scientists recommend by eliminating coal emissions. In my travels I have seen massive coal emissions blacken skies around the globe.
We cannot wait, the earth cannot wait until “idealogical purists” give us the high sign that such and such is ok by them. The earth does not benefit, citizens do not benefit, nor does the climate benefit from your tactics.
Nuclear (FPL & Progress Energy), Koch Brothers and Massey Mining continue to profit
ENORMOUSLY from extremists groups like yours. You may as well be working for them.

Comment by Pamela Mincey on November 3, 2010 11:14 am

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