GRU's Deerhaven generating station as seen from a satellite view. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

GRU’s Switch From Coal To Cleaner Natural Gas At Deerhaven Unit 2 Would Cost Upwards of $12M

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Members of the Gainesville Utility Advisory Board signaled their approval to make the local utility provider’s largest power generator burn cleaner and cheaper energy.

In a virtual meeting Thursday evening, board members unanimously voted to move forward on adding what is known as dual-fuel capability to Deerhaven Unit 2 of Gainesville Regional Utilities, located at 10001 NW 13th St.

Its 228-megawatt capacity makes it GRU’S largest power generator, though only 30 megawatts of its fuel is currently from natural gas.

The remainder of its fuel is drawn from coal, according to GRU Project Manager Chuck Heidt. Though the unit began service in 1980, Heidt predicted the utility could eventually transition to 100% natural gas and rely on coal only sporadically.

Converting the unit to dual-fuel capability would align with the Gainesville City Commission’s resolution aiming to transition the city’s energy to 100% renewable sources by 2045. Still, the board’s approval of dual fuel is non-binding and must be approved by city commissioners to become reality.

The meeting last week delved into technicalities that would be crucial in making the switch successful.

Dual fuel capability would allow Deerhaven to use non-firm natural gas, an energy source that is contingent on its seasonal availability, according to the GRU administrative and fuels operations director, Eric Walters. He said requests for non-firm gas come with no guarantee of delivery but generally have a much cheaper price than firm gas.

“[Non-firm gas] is readily available at most times during the year,” Walters said. “There are a couple weeks out of the year — either extremely hot or cold times — where that natural gas, on a non-firm basis, is unavailable.

When natural gas is unavailable, GRU would be forced to revert to using coal as its primary fuel source at the Deerhaven unit.

Beyond obstacles of its availability, GRU management conducted studies to see if transitioning to natural gas at the facility was logistically possible, focusing on financial metrics, technical capability, operational merits and environmental impact.

Their findings: The project is estimated to cost around $12.5 million, according to Jamie Verschage, the managing utility analyst.

Roughly half of the project expenditures would come during the remaining months of 2020, following the utility’s coming fiscal year that begins in October.

Verschage estimates the relative benefits to be apparent as soon as next summer, with initial savings of about $4 million expected from the generator’s renewed efficiency. Wendell Porter, the vice chair of the advisory board, said he believed these numbers to be conservative and hopes the savings are even greater, noting the delivery cost, alone, of coal is 47% higher than that of natural gas.

Heidt also questioned the unique benefits of a full transition, citing that while switching the boiler to run solely on natural gas would not damage Deerhaven’s equipment, it’s not yet clear if it would necessarily extend its performance either.

“As we did the due diligence, we discovered our boiler was really well set up and suited for this type of conversion,” Heidt said.

Most convicting, the environmental benefit is extensive. The utility’s modeling analysis showed emissions would be cut across the board: sulfur dioxide nearly eliminated, mercury down by 63%, particulate matter by 42% and carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide by 39% each.

The analysis predicted that by 2028, Deerhaven’s emissions of CO2 would be reduced up to 350,000 tons per year.

“The average American car emits about 5 tons of CO2 per year, so if we’re reducing our emissions by 300,000 tons of CO2 per year, its equivalent to taking 60,000 cars off the road,” Verschage said. “In Alachua County, there’s 173,000 cars and trucks on the road, so this is equivalent to taking about one-third off.”

Still, the switch is not the panacea to clean and cheaper energy in Gainesville. As outlined by board member Wes Wheeler in his board-approved recommendation to GRU, the long game is a complete transition to renewable resources at the Deerhaven unit by 2032.

About Rachel Kutcher

Rachel is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.

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