In Our View: Make Use of Scraps

Work done toward rejected biomass plant can fuel next, possibly successful proposal

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While a proposal for a biomass plant near downtown Vancouver has been scuttled, Clark County commissioners should be encouraged to continue their pursuit of such a facility.

It is not enough for leaders at the local, state, or federal level to cling to old and increasingly outdated methods for producing energy. With regards to environmental concerns as well as economic concerns, it is crucial that our governments be open to the development of new energy ideas and new energy technologies.

At the same time, we must consider each proposal on its own merits based upon a number of factors, rather than rush blindly to embrace plans that might or might not be logical. There is a difference between progress and change for the sake of change.

In the case of a proposed biomass plant at 11th and Harney streets, it was a good idea that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (in the interest of full disclosure, the plant would have been sited three blocks from The Columbian’s offices).

On Nov. 18, Schneider Electric, which had a contract with Clark County to build and operate the plant, notified county officials that it was withdrawing from the contract. Part of the reason for the decision was ongoing opposition from some citizens and from the Vancouver City Council; part was the fact that bids from contractors indicated that construction of the plant would cost nearly twice as much as originally expected.

“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,” company officials wrote in a letter to county commissioners.

The opposition to the idea of the plant reflects a grand victory for the democratic process. With any large-scale proposal, a variety of opinions and a breadth of input should be considered. Opponents worried about pollution from the plant as well as increased traffic near the downtown corridor. These were and are valid concerns.

Yet the idea contained many worthy attributes.

Under the proposal, the plant would have taken tree tops, limbs, and the detritus that comes from producing lumber and turned it into energy. The county’s plan was to use this energy to heat and cool five nearby county-owned buildings, with excess energy being sold on the public power grid. The county claimed it would have saved $170,000 a year in energy costs.

Biomass technology is still emerging, a grand experiment in turning scraps that otherwise would rot or become fodder for forest fires into something useful. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a ruling that was crucial to the further development of the technology; just weeks ago, both the University of Washington and Washington State University received $40 million grants to conduct research and develop biofuels and regional renewable-energy markets.

For a state whose economic security has been tied for generations to its wondrous forests, this provides an important synchronicity.

Therefore, rather than being viewed as a rejection of biomass technology, the scrapping of the county’s proposed plant should be viewed as a rejection of this particular plant at this particular time. The same could be said for a proposal from a few years back. In 2009, county commissioners ditched a similar plan to build a plant on the site of a former plywood mill at Chelatchie Prairie when that proved to be a larger project than commissioners wished to undertake.

The mere act of pursuing such plans can be costly, but it is a worthwhile investment that the county should continue to consider. Even with two strikes, you’re still up to bat.