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Debate About Gainesville’s Proposed Biomass Plant Continues

In its first hearing since the Florida Senate rejected two of its members, the Florida Public Service Commission heard arguments for and against a proposed biomass electricity plant in Gainesville.

The plant, a renewable energy project local officials in Gainesville say they are willing to pay more for, appears to be a test of the PSC’s populist turn since a conflict-of-interest scandal roiled the panel last year. That stance was rebuked sharply by several lawmakers as the Senate debated – and ultimately rejected – the appointments of PSC Commissioners David Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens.

Since last fall, when PSC staffers were accused of improper cell phone communications with utility employees, the panel has appeared reluctant to vote for electric rate increases. But the Gainesville biomass plant (Docket No. 090451-EM), which would produce 100 megawatts of power, would raise electricity rates in the city about 12 cents.

Supporters told the PSC they were OK with the increase after holding nearly 40 public meetings on the plant.

“The Gainesville Regional Utility presents to you Gainesville’s vision of Gainesville’s future,” Robert Scheffel Wright, a lawyer for the Gainesville Regional Utilities and Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, LLC, said as he introduced the case in favor of the plant.

The last major rate cases before the PSC, a $1.25 billion request from Florida Power & Light and a $499 request from Progress Energy, were mostly rejected. Some lawmakers questioned if the PSC had become too averse to rate increases after Gov. Charlie Crist choose to appoint Stevens and Klement instead of re-appointing two sitting commissioners when the PSC was thought to be close to utilities.

Members of the Gainesville City Commission and Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan traveled to Tallahassee to sway the commission to go the other way in the biomass case. Gainesville Commissioner Sherwin Henry said the city commission approved the plant “after careful consideration and a thoughtful public process” and argued that it was needed.

“The proposed biomass plant is critical to the long term vitality of our community and to ensuring GRU customers have a reliable source of electricity delivered at a reasonable price,” Henry told the PSC. “Improved reliability is at the heart of the reason we need the biomass plant. Our current fleet of generation is aging. The average age is 28 years. Just like older model cars, maintenance cost and the risk of breakdown can increase as units age.”

Monica Cooper, an unsuccessful candidate from Gainesville Mayor earlier this year who ran against the plant, said that there was unanimous support for the plant in the city, even if there was on the commission. Cooper intervened in the PSC case as a ratepayer.

“Contrary to the idea of widespread support for this biomass plant, there is actually widespread doubt and concern in Gainesville for this plant,” she said. “There is doubt that we have a need to build a new power plant. GRU has stated that we have no need until 2023. There is a doubt that we should build such a large plant – a 100 megawatt power plant is way bigger than many people envisioned.”

Plans submitted for the PSC to approve call for half of the 100 megawatts of electricity the biomass plant would produce to be sold to other utility companies looking to increase the amount of renewable energy. But Cooper was skeptical of those plans too.

“There is doubt about putting us in the position in Gainesville of having to sell 50 percent of this high priced fuel to other communities,” she said. “We don’t to commit to this oversized plant now. We have over-capacity, we don’t need to sell power to other communities.”

Ronald Saff, a member Florida Medical Association’s Environment and Health Section, argued the plant would be unsafe.

“It’s no secret biomass will produce massive amounts of pollutants that will cause death, disease, cancer and shorten lives,” Saff, an allergy and asthma specialist, told the commission. “All those pollutants are mentioned right there in the applications. The truth is, just like there’s no such thing as a safe cigarette, there’s no such thing as a safe biomass plant.”

However, the plant drew support from Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, and former Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua. Oelrich argued that the city needed the jobs the plant would create.

“This will bring 700 jobs, most of which will be permanent,” Oelrich said. “Many times a criticism of energy production is that we don’t look into the future. Here we have a community that is looking to the future. Strange as it may seem, 2023 is 12 years away.”

Oelrich added that there was science on both sides of the biomass debate.

“Like any big university town, we’re filled with people with the title of doctor,” he said. “It’s a very well-read and well-educated community. I can’t imagine a situation in a community as environmentally aware as Gainesville that the commission would vote unanimously without having a thorough review. Certainly people smarter than I with much more scientific expertise can tell you that it’s probably much more healthy than burning fossil fuels.”

There was some awkwardness to Oelrich’s testimony. Before speaking on the plant, Oelrich, a member of the Public Service Commission Nominating Committee, apologized for the Senate rejection of Klement and Stevens. He told the soon-to-be ousted commissioners he was in their favor.

“Some of the criticism I heard about you all is that you're not in the industry and…I thought that was a plus, as opposed to a minus,” he said. “I did vote for confirm both of you, but my side was not on the winning side."

Klement and Stevens took the comments in stride, thanking Oelrich for his support.

"I can indicate no bias in advance regarding any decision to be made on this case," Klement said. "I just want to thank you for your fairness and willingness to consider an issue on its facts and its merits, rather than its politics. It's unfortunate that more of your colleagues could not do that."

The PSC moved into technical hearings on the Gainesville plant Monday afternoon after accepting testimony on the proposal. The commission is currently scheduled to vote the necessity of the plant June 2, though that vote will likely come after Klement and Stevens leave the panel.

The PSC advertised openings for Klement and Stevens' seats last week and applications for the $130,036 a year jobs will be accepted until May 17.

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