In Our View: In the Right Place

Nothing against biomass technology — just not a power plant in the heart of the city

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For several years, The Columbian has been a big supporter of cutting-edge research and development of biomass technology. Biomass is a modern replacement for the increasingly antiquated burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. (Biomass is a process for burning wood debris and converting it into a power source.) For example, we thought it was a great idea to build a 20-megawatt biomass power plant in Chelatchie Prairie at a former plywood mill site, at least until Clark County commissioners abandoned the proposal last year.

But there is a time and a place for everything. We remain unconvinced that downtown Vancouver is the proper place for the biomass power plant that the county wants to build and use for central heating, cooling and domestic water heating for five county buildings. Fortunately, the city of Vancouver is holding the county’s figurative feet to the fire on this matter. Both sides presented their cases Wednesday to Hearings Examiner Sharon Rice, an attorney from Shoreline who is expected to render a decision within two weeks.

Something else occurred on the biomass front Wednesday, and it carried a powerful, positive impact for Washingtonians. At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it was announced that Washington State University and the University of Washington each received $40 million grants to conduct research and develop biofuels and regional renewable-energy markets. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described the twin awards by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “by far the largest of the five public-private partnerships to receive these grants across the nation, a reflection on the pioneering work being done in Washington state.”

Several components of this research bode well for our state. First, the research involves public-private partnerships between the universities and numerous corporate giants in the wood industry such as timber giant Weyerhaeuser and GreenWood Resources of Portland, the largest grower of poplar trees in North America.

Also, as U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement, the grants represent “an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively priced, American-made biofuels industry.”

Third, much of the research will be conducted with the aviation industry in mind, a perfect match here in the Pacific Northwest. According to an Associated Press story, the airline industry, which produces about 3 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases, is “seeking ways to control their fluctuating fuel costs and reduce their carbon footprint by turning to alternative fuel sources that can be interchanged with petroleum-based kerosene.”

At WSU, the research will focus on the potential for using residual wood after logging and forest thinning. Scientists will remember the business world’s bottom line, evaluating biofuels from planting through growing, harvest and conversion so that a viable industry can be developed.

At UW, a consortium of universities and businesses will probe ways to grow poplar trees that can produce multiple fuels. Ultimately, that could serve five or more biorefineries.

In the right places, of course. And unless Clark County commissioners can convince Vancouver officials that the county’s proposal is right for downtown, don’t expect any of that high-level research to affect the core of the city.