County's biomass plant proposal dead

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: November 21, 2011, 7:28 PM

 
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Termination letter from Schneider Electric

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A controversial plan to build a biomass plant in downtown Vancouver has been scrapped.

Schneider Electric, which had a contract with Clark County to build and operate the plant, notified the county it was terminating the contract, Mark McCauley, the county’s director of general services, said Monday.

In a Nov. 18 letter, Schneider Electric program manager David Palmer cited “setbacks, roadblocks and other obstructions,” including the loss of the ability to apply for a U.S. Department of Treasury grant because the city of Vancouver initially ruled that a biomass plant would not be allowed in the city center’s light industrial overlay district.

 A hearing examiner later overturned the city, but not before the Vancouver City Council passed an emergency six-month moratorium on development to block the power plant.

Schneider Electric planned to fight the city in Clark County Superior Court, alleging the emergency moratorium violated planning laws and due process by using a moratorium to stop a single project.

Palmer wrote in the termination letter that there were other problems.

Bids from contractors indicated that the cost of the plant would be nearly double what a county feasibility study had concluded, Palmer wrote.

Initially, Schneider had committed to spend up to $28 million to build the plant.

The bigger price tag would require power to be sold for a total of 15 cents per kilowatt hour, and after “extensive specific and dedicated efforts,” the company was unable to find any buyer willing to pay more than 6 cents per kilowatt hour, Palmer wrote.

Tom Mielke, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said in a written statement: “It’s too bad that Schneider Electric and the city of Vancouver were unable to resolve land use issues that would have allowed the project to proceed.”

Under the contract, the county was liable for up to $395,000 of Schneider Electric’s expenses.

Palmer wrote that Schneider has spent $960,000. He asked that the county pay Schneider Electric $395,000 within 45 days.

McCauley said that figure will be the subject of a discussion between county officials and Schneider Electric.

“We owe them between zero and $395,000,” McCauley said. “We have to sit down with them.”

Under the proposal, the plant would have heated and cooled five county buildings. The company would have generated extra electricity that could have been sold on the grid.

While the Vancouver City Council took the bold step of shutting down development by passing the emergency moratorium Oct. 10, the councilors had not been shy about expressing disapproval of the project.

The city and county have been at loggerheads over the idea of a biomass plant at West 11th and Harney streets almost since it was first proposed.

City leaders — and downtown neighborhoods — cited concerns about pollution, odor and traffic. They also said that the city’s vision for downtown is to move away from industrial uses to more commercial and residential development.

The county maintained that pollution and other factors would be minimal, and that the plant represents a sustainable way to heat and cool county buildings at no additional cost to taxpayers.

The biomass plant (fueled by tree tops, limbs and the detritus of producing lumber) would replace 11 boilers.

Mielke and Commissioner Marc Boldt supported signing the contract with Schneider Electric; Commissioner Steve Stuart said he had too many reservations to support the project.

Stuart lives in Vancouver’s Hough neighborhood among many of the protesters who have been picketing outside of commissioner meetings.

This wasn’t the first county biomass dream to be dashed.

In 2009, commissioners ditched a plan to build a 20-megawatt biomass power plant on the site of a former plywood mill in Chelatchie Prairie. The scale of the north county plant was larger than what commissioners wanted to tackle.

The county looked at other sites for a smaller biomass power plant before deciding the downtown location would be the best option because it’s so close to the five large county buildings: the Public Service Center, courthouse, jail, 911 center and the juvenile courthouse.

Last year, county commissioners agreed to spend $225,000 of a federal energy block grant on studying the feasibility of building the 5-megawatt plant.

Vancouver consulting firm LD Jellison, in two different studies, concluded there was a sufficient supply of woody biomass to make the plant viable and the plant would be “a good match with the renewable energy goals of Clark County.”

In Palmer’s letter, he wrote that the company appreciated the opportunity to work with Clark County.

“We share in your disappointment that this project is not financially viable, and have put forth all possible efforts to find resolution to this issue so the project could proceed. Although this particular project will not be continuing, we recognize and commend Clark County’s continued commitment to sustainability and look forward to future opportunities to help make the most of your energy.”