GNV updated on audit, construction, solar power  

Audit

The City of Gainesville continues to progress with its late 2021 financial audit as Sue Wang, acting finance director since mid-June, looks to correct systematic problems that external auditors noted in January that stretched back to 2018.  

She said the department looks to stay current for the next audit while pushing to finish the late 2021 one—the number one priority. However, Wang said the 2021 audit would fail to meet the Sept. 30 deadline after passing the June deadline earlier.  

“We are down to two things at this point,” Wang said. “One is bank reconciliations; the other one is analytics, which is the year over year analysis of all accounts. Without those two areas being completed, the auditors cannot wrap up the rest of the testing.”  

The city hired a third party to assist with the audit and has pulled personnel help from Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) as well.   

During an update at Thursday’s regular meeting, Wang said the financial department has adopted a three-prong approach: system, people and process.  

First, Wang said she wants all staff to become experts at Workday, their management system.  

Second, new staff need to get adequate training, and the department needs a few more hires. Wang also wants to increase communication within the department.  

Third, train all staff on the “why” of their role in order to develop standard procedures and meet goals. 

GRU also gave an update on its policy regulating how much solar power can enter the grid from customers.  

Currently, GRU caps homeowners and businesses from adding solar power to the grid if the local circuit, or feeders, would pass 2 megawatts (MW) of solar power added by customers.  

An independent firm, hired in November 2021, found that the policy remains sound. Other cities like Ocala, Jacksonville, Orlando and Tallahassee also have the 2-MW limit.  

However, GRU will expand past 2 MW if an impact study finds the increase possible. Tony Cunningham, interim general manager of GRU, said customer solar remains in the utility’s plans to hit the city’s net zero goal. But he said using solar as a path forward must balance against the safe operation of the system. 

“An electric distribution system wasn’t initially designed and built for generation at the end points, and that’s why you have some of these limitations,” Cunningham said. 

Of GRU’s 70 circuits, the study found some can expand up to 4 MW but others can only take 1 MW. Moving forward, customers can pay for impact studies, and if capacity is found past the 2 MW, GRU will allow a solar connection.  

GRU staff said an impact study could run around $5,000 for a residential customer. If infrastructure upgrades are needed, the customer would also need to pay for it—approximately $6,000 for a residential customer.  

Mayor Lauren Poe said the system opens the possibility for interesting dynamics. One neighbor might need to pay over $10,000 extra to add solar to their rooftop. But then the rest of the customers on the circuit can jump onboard without the extra burden.  

Cunningham said the dynamic already exists in development. The first housing complex has to pay for lift stations, but then newer, abutting developments reap the benefits.  

The city commissioners accepted the report, and Cunningham said the utility would continue to look at ways to increase solar power connections.  

Currently, customers add 31.2 MW of solar power to the system. A 2019 study found the system can handle between 40 and 75 MW. 

The commission also voted to move forward with the SW 62nd Boulevard roadway connection project. Staff said the construction will take from November to the fall of 2024. The project will also cause some roadblocks on SW 20th Avenue, SW 24th Avenue, Clark Butler Boulevard and SW 43rd Street.  

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Smart Guy

GRU and Gainesville are in an advantageous position to expand solar. Mr. Cunningham is correct that current utility systems are built around a centralized power plant model — electricity flows one way in this 20th Century design.

But if in the 21st Century utilities were re-designed around a concept of many small generators — from homes owners and small businesses to neighborhood scale renewables — a new system of inter-connected lower-powered micro-grids would have flexibility the current model does not have.

How to pay for this? That’s where the advantage that GRU and the city have kicks in — financing could be arranged for pay-back of 100 years, lowering the “monthly payments” on the capital investment. This is justified because residents 100 years from now would benefits from this far-reaching vision and approach.