During the morning of January 21, 2013 I was invited to join a group of 30 college students representing the Florida Youth Environmental Sustainability Coalition (FL YES Coalition). This coalition is a youth-led statewide network, whose mission is to promote, empower, and mobilize communities for social justice and environmental sustainability in the state of Florida. Gladys Nobriga organized this visit to the Swamp, where training, strategy, a visit to Porters Gardens, and a discussion of a coal-fired electrical power generation were all part of the agenda. I joined the group as they toured Porters Garden on Southwest 3rd Avenue, where Chris Cano (of Gainesville Compost) explained and demonstrated their methods for composting food waste. While simple and low-tech, the bok choy in the garden was an impressive testimony to the success of their efforts. Chris’ composting tips included: the composting process does the best when the waste is heated to about 130 degrees, kept moist, and the ratio of food waste to carbon (i.e. leaves) is about 2-1. He also showed off various low-tech mechanical devices designed to expedite the process including a sifter and a bicycle transport gizmo, called a Cantor Cart, which is used to transport the stuff.
After leaving the Garden, the group headed to the University of Florida campus, where we listened to a representative of Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) promote biomass as a source of green electrical energy. After she left, I pointed out that on March 11, 2010 the Suwannee St Johns Group of the Sierra Club (SSJ) adopted the following simply stated position: “The Sierra Club does not support the construction of a biomass plantat this time.” I added that the students needed to distinguish between a private company (i.e. GREC) and the government entity (i. e. Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU)). GREG is very happy with the contract because they have a contract guaranteed to make them a generous return on their investment. While GRU tries to put a happy face on the deal, they have stuck their ratepayers with excessive bills extending over the next 30 years. I pointed out that in your own personal finances you should always live within your means, keep debt low, and not buy stuff you don’t need. GRU (and the City of Gainesville) have expended and borrow huge amounts of money for a plant which they don’t need in the expectation they can sell the excess power (i.e. 50 megawatts) back on the grid at a profit. Unfortunately, the competing technologies (natural gas and coal) are much cheaper, which makes it impossible for GRU to unload the excess. In particular, the price of natural gas has dropped from $12.00/MBTU three years ago when the contract was signed to as low as $1.80/MBTU. (The current price of natural gas is $3.33/MBTU.) The Director of GRU, Bob Hunzinger, has admitted several times in public City commission meetings that his efforts to sell the extra power on the open market have been unsuccessful. He even mentioned that they might have to leave the plant idle for extended periods of time. Not a good business plan when you have a large fixed cost and the cost of the power GRU will be producing is 20-30% about the current spot market. The bottom line is that the contract is a lousy deal for GRU ratepayers. As for being green the biomass might have been OK if it had been smaller and located near a sawmill. As it is, since it takes 20 years to grow a tree and the life of the plant is only about 30 years, the biomass incinerator is not very renewable. In addition, trees must be cut and hauled a distance of up to 70 miles and the energy content of wood is far less than coal. The hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the biomass plant contrasts sharply with the modest inflow of money into the Porters Gardens and Gainesville Compost projects. After my spiel, we drove out to the plant and took photos. The security guard at the gate was not pleased and made us leave.