ELECTRIC Part 2: How we got into this mess, a brief history

By Lisa ZahnerThis is the second part of a two-part story, originally published in our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, about the role of the Vero Beach Power Plant and the history of the City of Vero Beach Electric utility. Part one appeared on Monday.

Skimming money from electric bills to support the general fund was not what got the City of Vero Beach into the electric power business in the first place. The city took over the first power plant built by the Vero Utilities Company in the early 1920s, when the private owners were unable to keep pace with growing customer demand. The first power generating unit in the current 19.6-acre power plant facility located on the northeast corner of 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard was put into commercial service in 1961. Since then, four more have been added: unit 2 in 1964, unit 3 in 1970, unit 4 in 1976 and unit 5 in 1992.

Even unit 1, while a bit of an antique, still is capable of generating power. The 12.5 MW unit is the least efficient of the five at the power plant, but was run for 81 hours in 2008 producing 467 MWh of electricity – at a very uneconomic 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

Unit 3, which went into operation in 1970, is a larger unit but it too is not very efficient. The 34 MW unit was run for 176 hours in 2008 producing 3,548 MWh of electricity at an allocated cost of 9.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

Unit 4, the largest unit in the plant which was placed in operation in 1976, produces electricity at a slightly lower cost than what Vero Beach paid for electricity last year through the FMPA. The 56 MW unit was run for 465 hours in 2008 producing 13,658 MWh or electricity at a cost of 8.1 cents per kilowatt hour – slightly less than the FMPA’s 8.4 cents.

The best thing the power plant has going, however, is the combination of unit 2, a 16.5 MW unit put into service in 1964, and the plant’s newest unit, the 38 MW unit 5 which went into operation in 1992.

“Units 2 and 5 work together, we take the excess heat from unit 5 and retrieve the heat to run unit 2 and it makes it much more efficient and the price of producing power that way is more efficient,” said R.B. Sloan, director of electric utilities.

Units 5 and 2 operated for 936 hours in 2008 generating a total of 37,128 MWh of electricity at a cost of 6.1 cents per KWh.

Remarkably, nobody in the Utilities Department seems able to say when the power plant ceased to be able to meet Vero’s needs. Even more remarkable, the Utilities Department is not able to chronicle the explosive growth of the customer base outside city limits.

Customer Service Supervisor John Lee says the Utilities Department never tracked customer numbers by whether they lived inside or outside of the City. “We only started running reports and tracking in the City and out of the City just the past couple of years when people started questioning it.” The split now is about 61 percent outside the City and only 39 percent within city limits.

But regardless of when the growth occurred, the amount of power the city has needed to buy from outside suppliers has grown every year.

“Our power plant kicks in when one of two scenarios occur,” said Sloan. “The first scenario is when it’s the most cost-efficient unit available, cheaper than all the other power suppliers. The second of the scenarios is when it is needed to support the system due to a system emergency or due to congestion in the transmission system or the power grid.”

Looking to the future, the power plant’s least efficient units – 1,3, and 4 – seem likely to be mothballed at some point early in the next decade.

But combined cycle units 2 and 5 may remain a dependable source of backup or emergency generating capacity for years to come. For one thing, it does give the city an emergency source of power in case other sources are disrupted by a hurricane. After the 2004 storms, the city hardened the power plant with steel doors and flood panels throughout. Sloan said that with a supply of natural gas, it could operate indefinitely.

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