On Thursday, the Gainesville City Commission approved the exact same contract with Origis Energy for solar power that it unanimously supported in February.
The commission also voted to keep its salary structure the same, stopping a scheduled 91% raise.
The solar project has been in the works for years, and Origis returned to the commission asking for an amendment to the contract in order to move forward. The amendment raised the purchase price that Gainesville Reginal Utilities (GRU) would pay per megawatt hour of electricity.
GRU’s Chief Sustainability Officer Eric Walters said the 20-year contract to purchase the solar energy would still provide a cheaper per megawatt hour (MWh) price than the utilities' average energy production.
However, the contract came under fire at an audit meeting with the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC). GRU recommended a pause on the contract in order to meet with the JLAC members and explain the details.
Legislators worried the city would enter another contract similar to the one that led to the buyout of the biomass plant, and redactions in the contract furthered that suspicion.
Walters told the commission that he and General Manager Tony Cunningham met with eight of the 11 JLAC members. While none endorsed the project, Walters said the state representatives and senators also found no red flags with the contract.
JLAC’s legal team also examined the unredacted contract. Walters said that the team supported the city of Gainesville's interpretation of the Origis contract and the company’s right to redact information.
But, Walters said the city wanted to be transparent to citizens as well, and GRU asked Origis to allow the city to reveal the redacted information of purchasing price. Origis agreed.
Walters said the agreement doesn’t set a precedent for future contracts. Redacting information concerning pricing remains an industry practice, he said.
The unredacted numbers show GRU would pay $40.56 per MWh. Walters said solar will provide a hedge against unstable natural gas prices and a diversity of energy sources. Plus, the price per MWh remains lower than what GRU predicts its own generators will produce in the coming years.
"I love that this is renewable energy, but that should not drive our decision,” Ward said.
Ward said the numbers show GRU will save money with the contract. Those numbers should drive the vote. Other commissioners agreed.
The commission reapproved the February contract that allows GRU to move forward with Origis. Walters said Origis will move forward with permitting and, if everything works out at the new purchase price, start construction in April 2024. The solar array would come online at the end of 2024.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with the City of Gainesville, GRU and the community to bring clean energy and lower generation costs to ratepayers,” said Jason Thomas, senior director at Origis Energy, in a statement.
With no comment from the commission or the public, the city commission voted 5-2 in a final reading to stop a scheduled salary raise for itself.
In December 2022, the previous commission approved the formula change that results in a 91% raise, hoping to professionalize the role and increase access to the dais. However, after meeting with JLAC in February, the current commission decided to reverse course and stop the raise.
Commissioners Reina Saco and Casey Willits dissented. Both said the job requires full-time hours and should receive full-time pay.
The salary increase was scheduled for Oct. 1, 2023, but now, the commission will keep the current structure.