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City commission approves another look at broadband and new solar PPA

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

After the COVID discussion in the Gainesville City Commission’s meeting on July 16, they moved on to a broadband discussion. The discussion was requested by Commission Adrian Hayes-Santos, who said the COVID pandemic has “brought to light, even more, the broadband… issues we have in our community.” He said children now need the internet for distance learning, and many people are working from home. He said some people have had to move or get a different job because of inadequate broadband service at their homes. “We actually made the national news last month… with issues with broadband and how Cox is slowing down the speeds in certain neighborhoods.” Hayes-Santos mentioned that Nationwide Insurance has closed its building in Gainesville to have its employees work from home: “The future now is working from home.” 

The City did a broadband feasibility study last summer, but the general conclusion was that it would be very expensive to move forward; Hayes-Santos proposed taking another look at it and, if necessary, using the already-budgeted funds to “see how we could make a city-wide broadband project more feasible.”

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Mayor Lauren Poe said it was important to work with “other stakeholders” on the issue: “I think our lens has changed, quite dramatically, since we last took a pass at it. But I want to put an exclamation point on the Nationwide issue. That’s a big loss, but it’s not just a Gainesville thing. Nationwide is closing down all of its brick-and-mortar locations across the country, except for five hubs… Communities that are able to offer the ability to work from home… are going to be more competitive. And this is great news for a lot of people, because now they really do have mobility choice, and if Gainesville has a world-class educational system, world-class parks, and natural environment… Another metric employers and employees are looking for is how aggressively our community is addressing issues of racial equity and economic disparity… I am supportive of moving forward with this.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson was concerned about how the initiative will be funded: “My concern has always been about GRU shouldering additional debt for this, and if we’re looking at sharing the cost [with the County or school board] or if there are different funding mechanisms that could be available from the state because of COVID-19, these are all things I’m interested in exploring… How are we going to pay for this?”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said, “GRUCom currently exists at GRU. It doesn’t have to exist at GRU. It could exist within General Government. I’m not advocating that today, to be clear, but it could move to General Government… Nobody freak out, I’m not advocating that today, but it’s something we should have a discussion about. The partnerships we should look to are much more extensive today than they were a year ago. We absolutely should partner with Gainesville Housing Authority; we should be partnering with Alachua County Schools, certainly… we should include private schools in the discussion; we should include all the charter schools in the discussion; Alachua County government should be included; the Library System; Santa Fe College; UF; State of Florida…; VA; the other municipalities… they’re starved for good internet.”

Hayes-Santos moved to give direction to the City Manager to take a look at the broadband feasibility study to see how a city-wide broadband project could be more feasible and come back to the commission with an analysis. Part of that is looking at partnerships with the County, other municipalities in the county, the School Board, the Library System, the University of Florida, Santa Fe, the Housing Authority, and the State of Florida. 

Poe said, “The ultimate goal is making sure every one of our neighbors has access to both affordable and high-quality broadband. How we get there is the question, but it’s really ultimately an equity issue, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn for the other commissioners: we believe that every person has the right to high-quality and affordable broadband service.”

The motion passed unanimously.

Solar PPA

The commission then discussed a proposed Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for 50 MW of solar power. The Utility Advisory Board recommended approval of the project, in spite of GRU’s refusal to answer their questions about the price per megawatt, which the vendor claims is proprietary information. 

The project is supposed to be complete by December 2022 and will take the next step toward the city commission’s goal of 100% renewable power by 2045. GRU currently has 26 MW of solar in its portfolio, split between the feed-in tariff and the solar net-metering. GRU also counts the 103 MW biomass plant as a renewable power source.

The system will include a battery capable of discharging 12 MW and storing 24 MWh of energy (2 hours’ worth) to smooth out the intermittency of solar. This battery will be one of the largest batteries in Florida. The solar array will be located south of the Parker Road Substation. GRU said, “We expect no upward rate pressure as a result of this pricing.”

During public comment, Louis Lee said he was uncomfortable with approving the project without site control (ownership of the property). Nathan Skop said the commission should not approve a contract that was provided to the public with heavy redactions, including the cost per megawatt of the power. 

Without further discussion, the commission voted unanimously to approve the contract. Poe said, “Congratulations, Gainesville and GRU customers, you just added 50 megawatts of solar, increasing our total ability to provide renewable energy to just shy of 185 megawatts, once this gets built out. This should be a day to celebrate.”

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