Florida energy producer GRU to swap to biomass after malfunction at coal plant

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), the fifth largest energy producer in Florida, has switched to burning biomass in the aftermath of a mechanical failure at the company’s Deerhaven coal plant.

The fuel swap had already been in the plans earlier due to a previous breakdown, but the Deerhaven incident caused the company to hurry the decision along.

But the change has been controversial in the area, as the cost of biomass-based energy is still higher than power generated from other sources, which has made GRU reluctant to rely on it.

GRU’s biomass plant was built and is operated by a privately owned consortium named Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) under a 30-year contract with GRU.

Since shortly after taking over as GRU general manager last year, Ed Bielarski has asserted a clause in the contract allows GRU to keep the biomass idle after it shuts down routinely, unless the utility orders biomass power.

Dino De Leo, GRU’s energy supply officer, told The Gainesville Sun newspaper that the company is still assessing the significance of the switch and does not yet know how much it will cost the utility.

Whether the biomass plan is generating power or not, GRU is committed to paying GREC $70 million (€62.6m) a year to keep the plant poised to produce power.

The Deerhaven Unit Two, where the malfunction occurred, had an outage scheduler for 8 October, but use of the biomass plant was requested on 28 September.

Deerhaven is GRU’s largest power plant and Unit Two was built in 1981 as Florida’s first municipally-owned, coal-burning, electric-generating unit, according to GRU’s website.

Spokeswoman Margaret Crawford said the switch is nothing alarming.

“This is typical,” she said. “This is business as usual in the energy generation business. We have to be ready with the expectation that something could go wrong at any time.”

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