PSC approves Gainesville biomass plant

Conceptual rendering of American Renewables proposed plant in Gainesville

A biomass power plant proposed by Gainesville was narrowly approved Thursday by the Florida Public Service Commission after nearly being voted down in February. The commission split 3-2 in favor of the plant.

Gainesville Regional Utilities requested a determination of need for the 100-megawatt plant that would be built and operated on city property by American Renewables of Boston. The needs determination request was being closely watched by both supporters and opponents of biomass energy in Florida.

“The PSC has taken an important step today toward significantly expanding Florida’s commitment to renewable energy,” Jim Gordon, chief executive officer of American Renewables, said in a statement following the vote.

But opponent Paula Stahmer told The Florida Tribune the vote would hurt GRU customers and encourage landowners to replace natural forests with rows of pine trees to provide fuel for the plant.

Supporter say biomass is renewable energy that provides a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, produces jobs and helps Florida agriculture. Opponents say the proposed plants threaten to drive up the cost of wood and are more polluting than conserving electricity or producing it from solar, wind and waves. The Gainesville plant faces opposition from the local Sierra Club and NAACP chapters. But the proposal has support from the local legislative delegation and the Florida Municipal Electric Association.

In February, a majority of PSC commissioners spoke against the plant and the cost to city ratepayers. The plant isn’t needed before 2023 and will cost customers between $3 and $13 per month, according to PSC staff. City officials said building the plant now would allow GRU to take advantage of tax incentives and get an early entry into the market for renewable energy credits under greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

Gainesville residents Dian Deevey and Paula Stahmer asked the PSC this week to delay action because they said a new federal greenhouse gas emissions rule would apply to the plant, raising the cost of electricity. But the commission voted to reject the request after PSC’s legal staff said federal officials assured them that the plant wouldn’t be subject to the new rule if it receives its federal air permit by Jan. 2, 2011.

Commissioner Nathan A. Skop, who raised concerns about the project in February, indicated that he probably would vote against the project — if it were submitted by a private utility. “We are being asked to pretty much sign off on a blank check with a lot of things that are not fully known,” Skop said.

But he and Commissioner Lisa Edgar said they were inclined vote for the project in deference to the Gainesville’s elected officials. Edgar, Skop and David Klement voted for the plant.

Commission Chairman Nancy Argenziano – and who voted no along with Commissioner Ben “Steve” Stevens – pointed out that the PSC staff recommendation to approve the project stated that there was “considerable uncertainty” about the economic viability of the project.

“In no way am I saying there are not many things of great value and merit to this case,” she said. “What I’m looking at is what the statute tells me (to look at).”

Stahmer, the opponent who intervened in the case, predicted the plant would be destructive to North Florida’s forests.

“Trees don’t grow over night,” Stahmer said after the vote. “And it’s going to put a lot of pressure on forest management — I think the wrong kind of pressure.”

This will be the last major decision by the current commission because Stevens and Klement have to step down because they were not confirmed by the Florida Senate.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting