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Gainesville Regional Utilities projects future generation with solar on the rise

The Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) building with a labeled sign. (Arda Utkan/WUFT News)
The Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) building with a labeled sign. (Arda Utkan/WUFT News)

A variety of scenarios relying on solar power and batteries are now under consideration for future power generation by the Gainesville Regional Utilities board.

The future options, which may cost $2 billion or more, are part of GRU’s so-called Integrated Resource Plan, an assessment of the utilities’ future energy needs and how best to meet them. Though the plan is not quite complete, the scenarios available to the utility involve a higher reliance on solar, batteries and natural gas. This new mix spawned from favorable solar prices and would contrast the current reliance on gas and biomass.

“It’s long-term, it looks over 20 years or 30 years or more,” said Jennison Kipp, 48, a resource economist working for the Program for Resource Efficient Communities at UF. She is also one of the stakeholders invited to provide input to the utility and represent community interests during the planning process.

“The critical piece of the model is that it’s iterative,” Kipp said. The plan functions by using modeling software called PLEXOS to receive information such as cost, reliability, inflation and demand. Iteration is vital because these inputs change often. The software then gives a variety of projections for the utilities, showing what energy decisions might best reduce cost.

The baseline total cost of serving energy needs for the planned period is roughly $2 billion, according to public data from stakeholder meetings. If the utilities were to completely avoid solar, these costs would rise to $2.4 billion.

Kipp said the plan’s many simulations operated on enormous amounts of information, an important prerequisite for reliable projections, but that more could still be done to constrain carbon emissions.

“This community has always been a leader in terms of climate action,” Kipp said. GRU leads the state in renewable energy use, according to their website. “We have a responsibility to be bold with our energy generation mix.”

Kipp also said the mounting costs associated with climate change are an incentive to replace existing resources with solar. But she also acknowledged relying on a single renewable source would be volatile. For example, without clear skies, utility-scale solar would be ineffective in producing energy.

David Hastings, 66, a climate scientist and retired professor of oceanography from Eckerd College, is another community stakeholder invited to the planning process.

“They kind of walked us through the process as it evolved,” Hastings said. “There are now a lot of us in the community that understand utility better.”

Hastings and the other stakeholders also learned about the GRU’s priorities for future development.

“Reliability is important, and cost is important,” Hastings said. “Utility-scale solar and batteries are very inexpensive right now- it’s very cost-effective, and it’s very reliable.”

Hastings is a member of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization. The club independently created its own resource plan for Gainesville with a different software and expertise from an organization called GridLab.

This report suggested the utilities could save even more in cost by further relying on solar. The Integrated Resource Plan included building new gas plants for the utilities, Sierra Club and GridLab did not.

Hastings said that, despite their ability to start up and produce energy quickly, gas plants would be more expensive to run than they were worth.

“We avoided building these new gas plants,” Hastings said.

The GridLab model provided multiple benefits over the alternative scenarios, saving $9.5 million more in costs than models in consideration from the Integrated Resource Plan and producing 31% less in carbon emissions, according to Hastings.

Neither model takes emissions into account. The current outlook of the board lies squarely with reducing costs to restore financial stability and improve rates.

The chair of the GRU Authority board, Craig Carter, said cost was the utility’s “number one priority,” and that the utility simply can’t afford to pursue net-zero emissions.

“That was a goal of the City Commission,” Carter said. “Net-zero sounds like a campaign speech sometimes.”

With most scenarios reducing carbon emissions by 75% from 2005 levels, the increasing viability of utility-scale solar and battery indicates a reduction in emissions is likely anyway.

Still, Carter emphasized the scenario prioritized by the regional utilities will be the one with the best cost. Past financial difficulties with the construction of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center still scar the utilities finances. The biomass facility was far more expensive than the city’s utilities could afford and caused debt to balloon to around $1.7 billion.

“The biomass was very devastating to our utility financially,” Carter said. “So how much more can we do before the customers can’t pay their bills?”

Arda is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing