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A Century of Service

Written by scott

After living in Palatka for two years, Adrienne Johnson was excited to move into her new home in Gainesville. Preoccupied with other tasks on her list, she was pushing boxes around the house when the power shut off.

Realizing that she forgot to change the name on the Gainesville Regional Utilities account listed for her house, Adrienne went to the GRU administrative office to fix the issue. Before she knew it, the problem had been solved and Adrienne felt more at ease.

“When all was said and done, we all had a chuckle, while I learned a valuable lesson which was: ‘Read Your Task List daily!’” Johnson said. “I would have to say GRU provides great customer service.  Every encounter has been pleasant, and the staff is warm and professional.”

For a monumental century, GRU has worked to serve more than 93,000 retail and wholesale electric customers in Alachua County. GRU has expanded utility service offerings over the years, and today provides water, wastewater, electric, natural gas and telecommunications to customers in Gainesville and Alachua County.

The start of the community-owned power system came in 1912, with a major dispute between the city of Gainesville and the privately owned Gainesville Gas and Electric Company. In the early 1900s, local entrepreneurs founded GG&E to provide for the city’s electrical and gas needs.

However, many residents criticized the company, complaining that it provided shoddy service, and that the streetlights were unreliable and poorly maintained. After the company denied the city’s request for a $10 reduction to its December 1911 bill, tensions between them worsened as neither side refused to compromise on the $7.30 bill dispute.

On January 26, 1912, GG&E responded by shutting off the city’s power. Gainesville residents were outraged and demanded the city create a publicly owned electric company. Two years later, Gainesville completed its construction of its first power plant, now known as the John R. Kelly Generating Station.

After working with the company for more than 28 years, David Sparks, who is currently the Electric Transmission and Distribution Manager, worked his way up from an apprentice lineman and can attest to the growth GRU has made over the years.

“Hardly anyone had a cell phone,” Sparks explained. “Technology is the biggest change we have. Communication has made us better in the field.”

Sparks is one of many employees at GRU who has stayed with the company for decades. Unlike employees of larger investor-owned utilities, many GRU employees are Gainesville residents and are also affected by the policies put in place.

“We’re here for them; a lot of customers work for GRU,” Sparks said. “It’s a community-based organization.”

Indeed, as a publicly owned utility, GRU has a major influence in the operation of the city itself.  It makes huge contributions to the General Fund Transfer, which provides for city amenities such as the police and fire departments and parks and recreation. GRU provided approximately $36.22 million for its annual transfer, which accounts for almost 10 percent of the city’s total budget. But even with this type of influence, it seeks to follow the direction of the community as well.

“This community has a strong environmental conservation outlook,” said Bob Hunzinger, General Manager of Utilities. “In a college town, the expectations are higher than in other places. We have a very educated community.”

Therefore, the utility strives to show its customers how they can be efficient. Starting in 2006, the company added new energy efficiency and demand-side management programs to help homeowners and businesses save money and conserve energy. These include energy efficiency surveys on homes at no cost.

Gas services began in 1990 for GRU with the purchase of the Gainesville Gas Company.

GRU wanted to increase service options for customers, and gas service was a missing element.

“Today, GRU provides natural gas for more than 30,000 customers, with prices among the lowest in Florida,” said Mike Brown, Senior Marketing Representative for GRU Gas department.

In 2003, GRU offered reclaimed water to customers for irrigation and other aesthetic water purposes and became the first utility in Florida to offer irrigation rebates to help save water in 2008.

“Our goals and missions for GRU match those of the community,” said Tony Cunningham, Senior Environmental Engineer for GRU Water and Wastewater department. “At GRU, we can encourage things to put in place, but individuals—our customers, citizens of Alachua County—are making the decision.”

Another significant part of GRU is its telecommunications service, otherwise known as GRUCom. Launching in 1996, it provided the first fiber-optic, high-speed network in town for both the University of Florida and the city of Gainesville. It now provides speeds up to 10 GBs per second for Internet, cellular carriers and other services over a 375–mile, all-fiber-optic network.

In addition to that, it launched its Public Safety Radio service in 2001, which serves as the combined communication center, connecting all of Alachua County’s public safety agencies to one another.

Now, GRU continues to grow after purchasing biomass energy from the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, which is scheduled to begin producing power in 2014. But despite all the changes, it doesn’t change its mission to serve its customers.

“Our employees work very hard to deliver reliable service at competitive prices with a customer service focus,” Hunzinger said. “GRU has provided the critical backbone of infrastructure to support the community for the past 100 years and we continue to move forward in looking for innovative solutions that will benefit citizens into the next century.”

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