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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Gainesville Regional Utilities will move forward with solar plant

Rates powered solely by solar could be an average of $35 per month

The City Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve a solar contract with Origis Energy, making construction of a plant in Archer the first solar project for Gainesville Regional Utilities. 

The previously redacted contract outlines a cost of about $40 per megawatt-hour. The average American household uses 886 kilowatts-hours each month, which would make a utility bill powered solely by the Origis solar plant around $35 a month. 

But the city will still need to rely on some natural gas resources as well as the GRU biomass plant, an additional source of renewable energy. Solar power can’t be supplied at night and is not as strong during cloudy days. But the price would still be a decrease in what the current GRU bills look like, said Eric Walters, GRU’s chief of sustainability officer. 

In addition, according to the Level 10 quarterly report, an average contract for a solar plant costs around $50 per megawatt-hour — making the Origis offer too good to pass up, Mayor Harvey Ward said. 

“We should let the math drive the decision,” Ward said. “If we choose not to do this we are not listening to the math.” 

Ward thinks it's crucial for Gainesville to source its energy from renewable sources, he said. After seeing other cities like Orlando and Tallahassee take steps to incorporate solar over the years, he doesn’t want Gainesville to fall behind. 

Even energy companies that donate to Republican politicians like Duke Energy and Florida Power and Light have invested heavily in solar, Ward said. 

“As I drove home from Tallahassee you can’t help but notice the sun glinting off of acres of solar panels,” he said. 

The plant, called the Sand Bluff Solar Project, was under review by the state’s Joint Legislative Auditing Committee due to GRU’s ongoing $1.7 billion debt. Over the past few weeks, the committee had a chance to review the contract in full and meet with GRU officials, Walters said. 

The committee found no red flags. Members did have concerns about whether the city could accept a redacted contract, but they gave Gainesville the go-ahead. 

The plant has faced multiple challenges, including a fight against placing it near a historic Black gravesite in Archer. It was then moved to a new location in Archer near Whitehurst Lodge and St. Joseph’s Church. 

In a statement, Jason Thomas, senior director of project development at Origis Energy for the project, said the company is committed to being “a good partner.”

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“It is a vote for carbon free energy generation,” Thomas said. “It is a vote for price stability and lower energy generation costs. This vote is a vote for GRU ratepayers.”  

Commissioner Bryan Eastman thinks the city has finally reached a point where there are no drawbacks, he said. 

Going into this discussion, he was looking for a solution that would be good for GRU customers, good for long term sustainability and good for the environment, he said. 

“I think this is one of those rare moments where the answer is yes on every single one of those,” Eastman said. 

Contact Siena at sduncan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.

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