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After appearing to be derailed earlier this year, a controversial 100-megwatt biomass power plant was back on track following a delayed approval from Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC) Thursday.

The project hit a speed bump in February, as PSC, a governor-appointed five-member commission that facilitates utility use, delayed its approval of the project.  But by Thursday, the PSC gave the so-called biomass plant the green light.

PSC Commissioner Lisa Polak Edgar said, “I am pleased to support today’s commission decision to diversify Florida’s fuel mix and assist a local community’s desire for renewable energy.

“As Florida continues to explore ways to expand its renewable portfolio, it’s important that we assist utilities in planning for a cleaner energy future,” she said.

Plans for the biomass plant, which is slated to be built at the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) Deerhaven plant on U.S. Highway 441 near Alachua, have sparked concerns among many who cite environmental sustainability and nearby residents who more often raise concerns over projected traffic increases. 

Otherwise known as the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC), the nearly $500 million biomass plant would be built and operated under a 30-year-contract by American Renewables, a company based in Boston, Mass.

In April, Alachua commissioners turned away GREC Project Manager Josh Levine who had hoped to get a letter of support for the plant from the City. 

Then Alachua Mayor Bonnie Burgess said, “What it boils down to is … water and trucks.”

Under the original proposal, the plant would require 1.4 million gallons of water per day.  Commissioners were leery about the impact such an increase in water usage would have on wells used by the City of Alachua to serve its residents and businesses.

Vice-Mayor Gary Hardacre told fellow-commissioners in a May 24 meeting that he was hopeful some of that impact on water levels would be mitigated after hearing of possible alternate plans in a recent meeting with the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD). 

Hardacre said, although commissioners were not prepared to endorse the biomass plant, if it is approved, GRU would likely become a customer of the City of Alachua, using the city’s reclaimed water program.  Details about the arrangements were not clear, but it appeared that SRWMD stood ready to help with infrastructure improvements necessary to supply the water to the GREC facility.

One aspect proponents of the plant have been unable to overcome is its impacts on traffic.  GREC would be fueled by wood debris, tree trimmings and clippings from a 75-mile-radius of the proposed plant.  Unlike coal which is currently used at the GRU power generating plant, they wood fuel for GREC would not be taken to the site on rail.

According to project details, most of the traffic carrying the wood to be used as fuel would arrive via trucks through Alachua.  Project officials estimate that 130 to 150 trucks will be heading up and down U.S. 441 en route to the plant or back out to Interstate 75 through Alachua. That breaks down to about one truck trip every five minutes.

The PSC approval came in a 3-2 vote on Thursday, but is only one step in approval for the biomass plant.

According to a release from the PSC, a final order approving the project is expected by June 21 and will include risk management guidelines to help mitigate potential future rate impacts to customers.

The project will also require review by several state agencies including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before it can be considered by Florida Governor Charlie Crist.