For the past few months I’ve communicated how our purchase of the Deerhaven Renewable Generating Station is a transformational moment for the city of Gainesville, Gainesville Regional Utilities and our customers.
This February, all customers will see a reduction in their electric bills as a result of the purchase. With the City Commission’s approval earlier this month, residential and non-residential customers will save 8 and 10 percent, respectively, off their current electric bills.
As significant as the power plant purchase has been, GRU accomplished so much more in 2017. I’d like to inform you of some additional successes and new initiatives that don’t always make headlines.
• Our water and wastewater systems successfully delivered more than 8 billion gallons of clean drinking water and collected, reclaimed and beneficially reused more than 6 billion gallons of wastewater. This was just business as usual for them.
• Our water/wastewater department also lined about 11.5 miles of gravity sewer and 550 manholes, helping extend the life of these facilities. It also keeps storm water from entering our sewer system, giving us more capacity in our collection system and our plants. Ultimately, this helps our systems run more efficiently and saves our customers money.
• GRU nearly tripled the electric capacity of its South Energy Center to accommodate the addition of the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital and Neuromedicine hospitals. As of Dec. 10, GRU provides uninterrupted power to these two new hospitals and the UF Health Cancer Center. This project benefits UF Health and the long-term revenue stream will help lead to downward rate pressure for our customers.
• In October 2016, the City Commission asked GRU and city planning to look at urban policy in redevelopment areas and assess how to improve conflicts in the review process. A GRU-based team has since collaborated with the general government team, the county and the development community to find solutions for recurring problems such as electric and sewer easements and tree placements. A successful partnership, the team continues to work on creative solutions to streamline and unify the redevelopment process.
• GRU has continued undergrounding power lines for all new construction, including significant projects in redevelopment zones and shopping districts such as Butler North and Celebration Pointe. We also undergrounded a 500-foot span of overhead on Millhopper Road that had gone down in numerous storms, causing traffic delays. The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for about two-thirds of that project. About 60 percent of GRU’s powerlines are now underground, improving reliability and community aesthetics.
• Our electric transmission and distribution department has aggressively targeted trees that may cause a hazard to utility lines, resulting in our lowest vegetation-related outage numbers in about 15 years and far fewer potential problems during Hurricane Irma.
• To streamline restoration efforts, GRU assigned “gray sky” roles to nearly every employee during Hurricane Irma. Thanks to this team-first approach and improved planning, GRU restored the majority of its 53,000 outages within the first 48 hours.
• GRU moved all Friday service disconnects to the following week so customers wouldn’t be left without power over the weekend or have to pay weekend connection fees. This has helped remove some stress from struggling customers, especially during the record-low temperatures we’ve experienced this winter.
• During the last fiscal year, GRU further assisted struggling customers by making more than 94,000 payment arrangements and creating more than 12,000 installment plans.
• For the first time, GRU and all other city departments combined fundraising efforts and raised more than $55,000 for charities. We look forward to continuing this partnership and raising even more next year.
• GRU’s 18th Annual Benefit Golf Tournament raised $25,500 for Williams Elementary School, whom we’ve helped raise funds for since 1997.
• Through Project SHARE, GRU partners with local charities and customers to provide assistance to fellow customers having trouble paying their utility bills. In 2017, Project SHARE raised more than $62,000 for those in need.
• GRU awarded six high school seniors $4,000 each toward their college educations through our Brighter Tomorrow Scholarship Program.
This is a small sample of what GRU’s employees do every day to help improve our community. Whether it’s working with a struggling customer to make payment arrangements or testing the energy efficiency of a home, we are dedicated to safely maintaining the essentials of life, which means keeping the power on and the water, wastewater and natural gas flowing. And we’ll do the same in 2018.
Ed Bielarski is general manager of GRU.