In 2009, Gainesville, Fla. through its municipally-owned utility, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), made a decision that will affect the city for years to come. Rather than build another coal plant to replace aging generation assets, GRU signed a power purchase agreement with American Renewables to acquire all of the output from the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) over a 30-year period. Currently under construction, GREC is a 100-megawatt net wood-fired biomass power plant that will provide electricity to approximately 70,000 homes in Gainesville, Fla., accounting for a fifth of the city’s power demand.
“The GREC facility will stabilize costs for the next 30 years, protecting our customers from the unpredictable price fluctuations of fossil fuels,” states GRU General Manager Bob Hunzinger. “The project also will bring much needed diversity to our power generation portfolio.”
With the power purchase agreement and construction and operation permits approved and 100 percent of the project’s financing in place, Gainesville will begin reaping the direct benefits of its sustainable investment by November 2013. However, the city already is benefitting from economic growth brought on by the project.
“In this tough economic environment, GREC is creating new jobs and keeping current workers employed,” GREC President Jim Gordon states. “GREC began construction in March 2011 and is already employing over 400 workers at the site today. This number will rise to nearly 900 as construction activities peak later this year.”
The financial boosts of GREC have made it an ideal project for the city, and in many ways the city of Gainesville is an ideal place for a biomass project. For one, GRU is governed by a board of city commissioners and is owned completely by the city, which means there are no private shareholder interests to consider.
However, there are other factors that make Gainesville prime for biomass. As Vice President of American Renewables Josh Levine explains, wood is to the Southeast what wheat is to the Midwest.
A Southeast Spin
“We talk about the Midwest being the bread basket of America,” Levine says. “When you look at the Southeast, this is the country’s wood basket. There are more timber products made in the Southeast than anywhere else in the United States and unlike west of the Mississippi where forests are owned by the federal government, in the Southeast approximately 90 percent are privately owned. Producing timber products generates a lot of biomass material that makes a good resource for producing power.”
This is especially true in Florida where state laws prohibit companies and municipalities from dumping their woody waste in Florida’s landfills. GREC will use multiple clean woody waste resources from a 75-mile radius. Roughly half of GREC’s biomass supply will come from forestry residue, such as the branches, slash material and undesirable species left over from logging. The rest will come from urban woody waste, such as power lines, and railroad tracks, along with land clearing debris and clean, woody waste removed by contractors.
“Today, many of these landowners [and] loggers open burn their forestry residue to prep their sites for replanting where there are zero environmental controls and a significant amount of particle matter and other air emissions. GREC will utilize this woody waste in a clean, controlled atmosphere to produce baseload, renewable energy for the region.”
The biomass plant, which shares its site with GRU’s existing coal plant facility, will consist of a wood fuel handling system, a bubbling fluidized bed boiler, a condensing steam turbine generator with an evaporative cooling tower and auxiliary support equipment. By using the latest combustion technology and boiler and emissions control technology, Levine says the plant will deliver clean energy in the least wasteful manner possible.
GREC hired Fagen Inc., as the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor to deliver that solution and called on Metso, a global technology supplier, to provide the boiler, a vital piece of equipment.
“What’s important about their technology is its efficiency,” Levine explains. “It allows us to use the biomass material as completely as possible and to burn as efficiently as possible, which will reduce our SO2, CO2 and NOX emissions.”
To further control the NOX emissions, the plant uses a selective catalytic reduction system. To mitigate particulate matter, Fagen is constructing a 20-module baghouse, which will offer better filter control and put the facility well within the latest EPA guidelines. GRU also holds itself to stringent environmental standards as its site is a zero-liquid-discharge zone, meaning that all industrial wastewater is recycled and reused and will not leave the site.
Fagen is at work putting all the pieces together. Currently, the company is focused on ground-up construction, such as erecting the boiler, wood yard conveyors, and the administration building. When the complex is fully operational, GREC will supply clean, renewable energy and employ 47 full-time positions.
“Once GREC is operational, it will spend approximately $30 million per year buying wood from the surrounding region,” Gordon states. “This money will support the forestry industry, including landowners, loggers, truckers and others. In these challenging economic times, I’m proud to say that GREC is doing its part to stimulate economic activity in the region and put folks to work.”