UF students along with community members and organizations gathered outside Emerson Alumni Hall on Monday evening to protest the new Central Energy Plant that UF is preparing to build.
Around 50 protestors chanted different slogans and brandished pink, yellow and cardboard signs.
Members of North Central Florida Indivisible, Young Democratic Socialists of America and Suwannee St. Johns Sierra Club spoke to the crowd while standing on the same pedestal as UF mascots Albert and Alberta.
The university’s plant will supply 34 megawatts of power to the central campus in the form of steam and electricity, but the plant runs on gas, which students say contradicts UF’s goal of carbon reduction.
David Hastings, a member of the Suwannee St. Johns Sierra Club executive committee, said he wants UF to pause and reconsider.
“The University of Florida has a good idea of trying to change the way they produce energy but bad implementation,” Hastings said in an interview at the protest.
He said new solar technology should be considered instead. In a letter to UF President Kent Fuchs, the local Sierra Club points out that the new gas plant won’t stay new forever. And once renewable energy takes over, UF will be left with a “stranded asset” that no longer has value.
Instead, Hastings said he’d like to see UF buy power from GRU or Duke Energy as it ramps up its own solar arrays. Currently, solar energy powers only .65 percent of UF’s annual electricity consumption.
Even before building solar, Hastings said UF should remodel its building for maximum energy efficiency like it did with the Reitz Union and saving UF $414,000 a year.
UF needs a new power solution because its contract with Duke Energy is ending. The power provider will decommission its cogeneration plant, in operations since 1976 and not located on campus, in 2027.
UF plans to build the Central Energy Plant on Gale Lemerand Drive and has sent out a request for qualifications from energy providers with Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU) planning to answer that call.
GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski approached the Gainesville City Commission at its Nov. 4 meeting for permission to submit a proposal and the commission agreed.
The commission has been pushing the utility toward renewable energy, requiring GRU to hire a chief climate officer, but they’re backing GRU’s bid to operate the new gas plant because of the economic opportunity.
“The power plant is going to happen, no matter what,” Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said at the meeting. “If it’s going to happen no matter what, I would like for those tens of millions of dollars in revenue to stay local. If it stays local and comes back to the city, that directly goes to lowering the rates, making it cheaper for everyone in our community to purchase power.”
On its website, UF says it needs “robust production and distribution systems” for 131 on-campus building and research labs that need exact temperatures.
“The goal is to maximize future efficiency while fulfilling the ever-growing infrastructure needs of a top-tier research institution,” UF says on its page about the new plant.
Overall, the new plant will save the university money and cut carbon emissions. UF estimates that its utility bill will save around $16 million a year while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25 percent.
The savings come because UF’s plant will be more environmentally efficient than Duke’s cogeneration plant while also producing electricity that UF doesn’t need to buy from a state-regulated supplier.
UF will also gain a degree of independence from the electrical grid in case of a power outage.
The new plant will generate up to 60 percent of the university’s electricity needs. UF’s website said it could then fill the rest of its electricity consumption with solar or renewable energy.
Still, protesters on Monday said the new plant contradicted UF’s stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2025.
“I’m mainly concerned because UF has made a commitment to green initiatives and building a gas plant doesn’t sound inline with that,” said Jane Pollack, a UF alumn who works in Gainesville. “I think UF should commit itself to what it promised.”
If you’re going to spend millions of dollars on electricity generation, Pollack said, why spend it on gas-powered instead of renewable energy?
Organizers asked protestors to take action and write to the board of trustees and tell other students. UF’s board of trustees will meet this week on Thursday and Friday at the Emerson Alumni Hall and protesters said they plan to be out front.