Gainesville City Commission to seek solar agreement, sell utilities radio system

Gainesville City Commission voted in favor of selling the GRU radio system for workers to Alachua County. They also voted to move forward with negotiations to build a solar farm in Archer.

Gainesville City Commission to seek solar agreement, sell utilities radio system

The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously to both sell the Gainesville Regional Utilities worker radio system to Alachua County and move forward with contract negotiations for a solar plant in Archer.

The commission discussed the solar plant Feb. 16 and approved pursuing an agreement with Origis Energy, a solar company that provides energy for Tallahassee. Now, contract negotiations are in motion.

With the solar plant, Gainesville could be running on almost 80% renewable energy by the end of 2024, according to Harvey Ward's calculations during the Feb. 16 meeting. This would be more than any Florida city, he said.

Harvey Ward, however, pointed out that the city must buy power from anywhere as long as it supplies municipal utilities. He said he doesn't see any reason why it shouldn’t be green energy.

'We have to purchase megawatts from someone,' Ward said. 'Or else we have to turn the lights off.'

However, residents' caution was also shared by Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who originally made a motion not to accept the solar contract. The motion failed due to lack of a second from the others.

Chestnut's central concern comes from the fact that Origis is legally allowed to redact parts of the contract currently, she said. According to Florida law, solar prices are considered trade secrets that the company can hold back in order to stay competitive with other solar providers. The commission has a rough estimate from Origis, but no exact prices.

Chestnut doesn't think going in blind is a good idea, she said. She sees similarities to the biomass plant deal in 2017, which
plunged GRU
further into debt. The plant is often
traced back to high utility rates
in Gainesville.

'I feel like this is biomass number two,' Chestnut said.

Still, she voted in favor of approving negotiations once her original motion failed.

On the flip side of the debt coin, GRU's radio system will go to Alachua County for $8 million, paid over the course of five years. The county's offer was meant to help out the city with ongoing debt issues, said county spokesperson Mark Sexton.

The commission should find a solution to the debt by the end the year.

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The radio buyout is important to alleviating some of the debt, said GRU business services officer Lewis Walton. Eight million dollars still doesn't quite cover the amount of debt related to running the radio service, but it comes close, Walton said.

But the radio is just one aspect of the overarching GRU debt issue, said Commissioner Casey Willits.

Willits stated, "This is an opportunity." "But it's still not the solution to all of the problems."

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Siena Duncan
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.