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Gainesville leaders give final OK to large-scale solar farm project

Gainesville leaders give final OK to large-scale solar farm project

Nora O'NeillStaff writer

The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously to approve a solar contract with Origis Energy on Thursday, a step toward creating a large-scale solar farm project in Archer.

City leaders initially approved a contract amendment to the FL Solar 6 project, a 75-megawatt solar plant about 15 miles west of downtown Gainesville in February.

Shortly after, the city was forced to explain its decision during a Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee hearing that broadly discussed its overall financial outlook and $1.7 billion debt. The project was temporarily placed on hold until some legislators reviewed the details.

Thursday's decision positions GRU to have an operational solar farm by the end of 2024.

“The decision we're making here is going to be good for the ratepayers of our community, is going to be good for the long-term sustainability for GRU,” said Commissioner Bryan Eastman. “This is going to be good for our environment.”

What did JLAC think of the contract?

GRU was able to meet with 8 out of 11 members of JLAC to discuss the contract, according to Eric Walters, the utility's chief sustainability officer. Members of JLAC seemed happy that Gainesville officials were willing and able to provide additional information about the contract, he added, and didn't have concerns.

“They all seemed genuinely interested in the well-being of the city utility going forward,” Walters said to the commission.

“There was obviously no glowing endorsements,” Walters added. “ But there are also no red flags that were identified on those contract terms and conditions either.”

What does Origis say?

After the commission's passing vote, Jason Thomas, senior director for project development at Origis Energy for the project said it was a vote for "carbon-free energy generation.

"It is a vote for price stability and lower energy generation costs. This vote is a vote for GRU ratepayers," he said. "Origis is committed to being a good partner with each and every community where we work, including here in Alachua County and the city of Gainesville."

Origis said the project creates no burden on taxpayers and will keep rates down, which can't be achieved with gas-fired power.

Is it expensive?

The implementation of solar energy will be cheaper than continuing with natural gas, Walters said.

The price would be around $40 per megawatt per hour, he said. Eastman shared a Level 10 study that placed the average market rate at $49.52 per megawatt per hour.

Mayor Harvey Ward said that although the goal of achieving renewable energy is important, the decision to approve the contract was really a financial decision.

“We should let the math drive the decision,” Ward said. “If we choose not to do this, we are not listening to the math.”

Where will the plant be?

Miami-based Origis Energy originally planned to build the solar farm next to a historic Black neighborhood near Archer, but eventually withdrew its application to build on the site last summer, after the County Commission denied the company’s location permit.

The local NAACP chapter and Sierra Club are among the groups that provided public comment against the Sand Bluff Solar project. The company also faced mass pushback from Archer residents, including legal action from a coalition of about 30 neighbors within a predominantly Black community.

The new location, about 1.5 miles south of the original and more than 2,000 feet away from any residences, eases the disruption to nearby neighborhoods.

Walters said Origis continually engaged with Archer residents in the period between its permit denial and the revised proposal.

“What we saw here was basically going back to the community and saying, ‘What happened? What did we do wrong here? What do we change?” he said.

When will it be built?

GRU will have to submit a permit application to get approval, a process that takes about a year, Walters said.

The projected timeline is approval in April 2024, and then construction and mobilization in hopes of reaching a start date before the end of 2024, he said.

Had the commission not passed Thursday’s motion, the time frame for an operational solar farm would have been pushed back a couple of years.

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