Gainesville Renewable Energy Center creates new opportunities

Guest Blog | September 20, 2010 | Energy Policy

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:

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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