Gainesville City Commission authorizes new contract for solar facility

Eric Walters, Chief Sustainability Officer of GRU, presents the new contract


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – During their February 16 Regular Meeting, the Gainesville City Commission voted to approve a heavily-redacted amendment to their Renewable Energy Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with FL Solar 6, LLC, an Origis Energy project.

Eric Walters, Chief Sustainability Officer of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), outlined the history of the project, which began with an Intention to Negotiate that was issued in 2019 as part of the City’s goal, set in 2018, to achieve “Net Zero” greenhouse gases by 2045.

GRU currently has the ability to generate about 137 megawatts (MW) in renewable energy, including 103 MW from the biomass plant, 18.5 MW from the Solar Feed-in Tariff, about 14 MW of net-metered solar, and 1 MW from landfill gas. Other generating plants include the John R. Kelly Generating Station (118 MW) and the Deerhaven Generating Station (429 MW); both use natural gas to generate electricity.

Walters says GRU has the highest percentage of renewable energy in the state and that about 30% of GRU’s generation last year was renewable: “To my knowledge, there’s no other utility in the state of Florida that’s even in the double digits, so we are clearly a leader in the state in that area.” Walters said the only renewable options in Florida are solar and biomass, so “Solar’s going to play a significant role in how we meet [the Net Zero 2045] resolution.”

History of the project

After the ITN was issued, Origis was selected in July 2020, although citizens like Nathan Skop argued that citizens should have access to cost information that was redacted in the contract provided to the public, which offered a 50 MW facility at a fixed price per megawatt for 20 years.

In March 2021, Archer residents who lived near the project called in by phone to a city commission meeting to ask the City to build the facility somewhere else. A week later, they began circulating a petition, and by April the City of Archer and the NAACP had joined the neighbors in opposing the project. On July 6, 2021, the Alachua County Commission denied a special exception for the project after a seven-hour meeting, effectively derailing it. On June 6, 2022, the neighbors, represented by Skop, reached an agreement with Origis in which Origis acknowledged the concerns expressed by adjoining property owners and Archer’s Historic African-American Community and agreed to withdraw its original application and relaunch the project in a different location.

Meanwhile, on February 17, 2022, the city commission approved a contract extension with Origis, extending the date for commercial operation to December 31, 2024.

Costs of solar installations rise

As all of this was unfolding, Walters said, the costs of building a solar facility have increased sharply, and Origis informed GRU that they could no longer honor the price in the original contract. Walters said that at that point, GRU had three options: start over with a new ITN, build their own facility, or negotiate new terms with Origis. GRU decided to negotiate with Origis, mostly because it would provide a “quicker incremental step towards reaching the 2045 resolution.”

As part of the negotiations, the facility size increased from 50 MW to 74.9 MW, and the battery, which originally provided ramp-rate control, will now include energy shifting to benefit GRU’s operations.

Walters said GRU compared the new prices to other solar agreements and found that the new price was in line with those contract adjustments; however, the price was redacted in the copy of the amendment provided to the public, and no prices were discussed during the meeting. Walters said, however, that the price “is still projected to not increase rate pressure.”

Site selection

Jason Thomas from Origis discussed the process of site selection and community engagement and said the company will be conducting additional outreach, but there are no homes within 2,000 feet of the fence line of the facility. The new parcel is about a mile and a half south of the previous location.

Origis plans to hold a neighborhood workshop on March 1 and will submit a Site Preliminary Development Plan Permit Application soon after that. The developer hopes to break ground in March 2024 and achieve commercial operation by December 31, 2024.

Staff’s recommendation was to authorize the GRU General Manager to execute the amendment with FL Solar 6, LLC (Origis) and also that the City pledge to “not encourage future solar development on the previously denied parcel, due to its proximity to historic african american [sic] landmarks.”

Commissioner discussion

During commissioner discussion, Commissioner Ed Book said almost all the feedback he’d received from the community had been positive. Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut asked to amend the language in the recommendation to say, “due to its proximity to a historic African American rural community and cemetery.” Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker pointed out that “African American” had not been capitalized in the staff recommendation and asked for that to be corrected. Walters said that was a “font thing” that would be fixed.

In response to a question from Commissioner Casey Willits, Walters said the 74.9 MW size was chosen strategically because “anything 75 MW and above, you have to go through a siting justification and a whole lot of other justifications… That’s why that break is always at 74.9.”

In response to another question from Willits, Walters said the PPA payments would be imputed as debt and were not included in the debt projections that had been presented to the commission in the February 15 Budget Workshop.

Commissioner Bryan Eastman asked whether the PPA would still be a good plan if the City did not have a goal of Net Zero by 2045. Walters said, “This looks like a good deal for us to do now, despite the 2045.” He said the 2019 GRU Integrated Resource Plan recommended about 80 MW of solar energy, “so there was some solar that we would go in and do anyway, simply because it’s a good thing to do.” He said they would need to evaluate whether doing more than this would be advisable, but “this first solar project, we would do either way.”

Mayor Harvey Ward asked, “On a day like this, a bright spring day, with the 100-ish megawatts we have from Deerhaven Renewables and adding this on top of that, what’s our maximum need for a day like this?”

Walters said the maximum electrical load on a sunny spring day would be around 220 MW. Ward replied, “So we would get 75-80% of our need, on a day like this, during the daylight hours and even a little bit into the evening with the batteries, without burning fossil fuels. That’s pretty great. I don’t think anybody else in the southeast is probably there, certainly not in Florida.” He said he was pleased the deal was back because he had feared it was dead. He also said he was pleased to be “on track to our climate goals and do that at a price that right now is less expensive, I think, than what we’re paying for natural gas.”

Public comment

During public comment, Roberta Gastmeyer said she supported the project, and “adding solar to our local energy mix is not virtue signaling, it’s not a City vanity project, and it’s not an extravagant or wasteful expense. Instead, it’s a critical component to the City’s commitment to clean energy and Net Zero emissions… It makes us more resilient, more of our energy production and supply will be under our local control, and it adds to our diversified mix of energy sources and will keep our power costs more stable.” She said she hoped the commission would approve the project “so that we can start planning the next one–we’re going to need two more of these, folks, so we need to get going on this first one.”

Janice Garry, representing the League of Women Voters, said the League supports the project: “It is critical that we reduce our carbon emissions to alter the trajectory of impact on our climate.”

Jo Beaty criticized the redactions in the contract and reminded listeners that the biomass plant was also built under a PPA because that was supposed to reduce costs: “That turned out to be false; it didn’t happen that way… I have a problem with the way the City has managed contracts.” She said she would prefer for the City to own and operate its own facility, even if it led to a “slight delay.”

Nathan Skop said the amendment is a “win-win solution” that he was happy to have played a part in, as a pro bono representative of his clients in Archer. He thanked Origis for working in good faith to reach the agreement to select a different site and supported Chestnut’s amendment to the staff recommendation: “I think the term ‘landmark’ was a poor word choice.”

Motion passes unanimously

When the discussion came back to the commission, the second part of the staff recommendation was rewritten as, “The City of Gainesville not encourage future solar development on the previously-denied parcel, due to its proximity to a historic, rural African American community and cemetery.”

Book made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation as amended, and Chestnut seconded the motion. Before the vote, Ward thanked Skop “for being a part of this; it’s great to be able to reach across the aisle and work together. Thank you.” The motion passed unanimously.

Former GRU General Manager disputes Ward’s assertion on renewable energy percentage

Former GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski responded to Ward’s assertion that 80% of the electricity needed on a sunny spring day would come from renewable sources: “Ward’s assertion that the new solar deal combined with the biomass generation would provide 80% renewable energy on a sunny spring day is simply uninformed. It ignores the spinning fossil fuel power required to back up the unreliable solar power (those are not my words, they are federal agency rules). Hold onto your wallets, folks, with Mayor Ward’s logic, it’s gonna be a bumpy and expensive ride.”

  • Another failure to come. How much are they lining their pockets with this time? Just like the wood burner and the solar deal they did several years ago that ruined GRU. They just can’t stop making anal decisions.

  • Do the contract redactions show elaborate Hunter Biden style political payoffs in foreign accounts, by chance?

  • Remember what happened when the environmental idiots AKA the City Commission hid the costs from the citizens? That stupidity cost the citizens and GRU customers over $1,000,000,000.

  • They still won’t admit that the Biomass Plant is not carbon neutral and emits more CO2 than DH2.

  • A quick update towards your environmental awareness:

    This is all part of the United Nations master plan being implemented on the local level….

    ”Net zero greenhouse gases by 2045”, Sounds nice, huh? We all want to save the planet.… but the devil is in the details, just like how the Covid pandemic was the perfect cover to implement “the great reset” with its goal to stop climate change.

    It was former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan trying to comply with Kyoto Protocol locally that got us into the billion dollar biomass boondoggle that ruined GRU to begin with…the United States was NOT a signatory to that agreement.

    I’m going to keep this short…the place where this great idea to save the planet came from is the same place that wants to take your liberty & freedom away…. It’s from the
    same people who want to control the planet by forcing vaccinations on you and requiring a VAX passport (mark of the beast) in order
    for you to travel. It’s from the same people who want to take your inalienable right to defend yourself away…it’s from the people who want to take private property rights away..it’s from the same people who want to put the
    technology inside your body that can determine your carbon footprint by 2030….the devil is very smart any many think he doesn’t exist. Resist! The devil will fail if you do not comply with Vax
    Mandate and Vax passport….

    Class dismissed.

    • There was a solar program before the failed biomass waste of money that started the down fall of GRU by the city commissioners.

  • If GRU utilized 30% renewable energy last year why did the GRU rates go up? One, for the raises they paid themselves and two, for their fiscal incompetence. Anyone who believes otherwise is as big an idiot as the liberal idiot leaders they voted for.
    If you think this is going to cut utility rates in Gainesville, maybe you should admit yourself to a mental hospital.

    Liberals, they’re so gullible.

  • Competition is based in part on full knowledge of the market place, not secret information.

    There should not have been redactions in the contract–remember last times(?).

    If the vendor didn’t want to be open with what they’re selling then the commission should have searched for someone who was.

  • Almost the exact scenario that cost us $1 BILLION to date for the 30 year GREC PPA fiasco, where 5 years and $150 million PPA and legal lawsuit payments, found it was so costly we simply bought the plant for $750 financed to start the 30 years all over again!
    Steps: 1: vote authority to negotiate x MW and x years; 2. Negotiate and strike deals in secret. 3. Go big! Get more MW and longer term 35 years? “It’s such a good deal!”. 4. Public sues and finds out damming information. 5 commission quickly approves deal 6. Public and new commissioners in coming years find out it’s a raw deal, will be cheaper if we buy the plant and contract (having zero idea how to run it – and forced to keep $85 hr employees to do so).

    Good luck!
    State of Fl; HELP PLEASE!!!

  • I’m confused. How can a public utility, with a KNOWN history of making extremely bad and extremely costly deals with outside entities, be allowed to enter into yet another costly deal WITHOUT the public knowing the actual costs of said project.

  • People keep blaming GRU for all these ills, when it is the mayor and the city commissioners who make ALL the decisions. They fire whomever goes against their greedy little wishes.

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