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Power plants eye North Florida forests for green fuel

Companies are turning to trees as a green fuel as coal power becomes more expensive.

By Steve Patterson

North Florida’s vast forests are drawing the interest of electric companies like JEA and others who are seeking green fuels as coal-powered generators face new costs and regulations.

Three power plants that would run mostly on scrap wood from logging are planned or under consideration in Hamilton and Alachua counties.

"Forestry is a huge industry in North Florida. … A significant portion of our fuel supply will come from forest residue," said Josh Levine, a project manager for American Renewables, a Boston-based company seeking to build two plants in the region.

Gainesville Regional Utilities has agreed to a 30-year contract with the company to buy power from a 100-megawatt plant that American Renewables would build in Alachua County.

The company wants to build an identical plant south of Jasper in Hamilton County, under the company name Hamilton Renewables, but won’t go forward unless a utility commits to buy the power long-term. Levine said talks on that are ongoing, but he wouldn’t identify the potential customer.

Separately, JEA has been negotiating to buy power from a yet-to-be-built 50-megawatt plant in Hamilton, said Gerri Boyce, a spokeswoman for the Jacksonville utility.

If those talks lead to a contract, JEA would be buying power from a plant that would be built and owned by Adage, a company formed by Duke Energy and French power firm Areva. There’s no agreement on the price or how long that deal would last, Boyce said.

The project, which Adage had proposed by last year, fits into a broader JEA goal of getting 7.5 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2015, Boyce said.

The company has considered building a plant near Interstate 75 and Florida 6 West, Hamilton County Coordinator Danny Johnson said.

"I think it’s going to be a tremendous boost to the timber industry. … There’s a lot of related jobs that will benefit," Johnson said. "We’re happy about Adage, we’re happy about Hamilton Renewables. … We hope to land them all."

None of the plants has sought state environmental permits yet, a process that will take more than a year to complete, said Mike Halpin, director of the power plant siting office at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Halpin said he’d had preliminary talks about plants in both counties and wasn’t immediately aware of any major obstacles.

Scrap wood as an electric fuel source figured prominently in plans state officials drafted last year for increasing Florida’s use of renewable energy.

But Halpin said he could think of only two small wood fuel facilities operating now in North Florida – in Jefferson and Liberty counties – and a couple south of Lake Okeechobee that use sugar cane waste as fuel.

As a fuel source, wood’s cost is fairly close to natural gas now but higher than power from coal plants, said "We believe it’s a long-term investment," said Ed Regan, assistant general manager for strategic planning at Gainesville Regional Utilities.

Much of the wood that would go to the power plants is currently stacked in clearings after logging and left to rot, or is set on fire by clearing crews, Levine said., (904) 359-4263