Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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City gets cloudy forecast on biomass plant

Project being mulled by county could produce dark smoke downtown, official says

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A new biomass-fueled plant being considering for downtown Vancouver could alter the city’s skyline and emit intermittent clouds of black smoke, the region’s top air quality official said, causing a Vancouver City councilor to call for the project to be killed immediately.

Last month, the Clark County commissioners agreed to spend $225,000 of a federal energy block grant to study the feasibility of building a biomass plant at West 12th and Harney streets, west of the jail.

Biomass technology, heralded by many as a renewable energy source, uses treetops, limbs and other forest products scraps to generate steam and provide central heating and cooling and water heating.

But Bob Elliott, executive director of the Southwest Clean Air Agency, cautioned that a downtown biomass energy plant may also have a smokestack taller than all the buildings around it, and that it would likely exhaust visible black or brown plumes in some conditions.

Elliott said he has no opinion on the project and realizes things are still in the planning stages, but he wanted to bring up those points as biomass is studied.

“Both of those concepts are a change to what we have in the downtown area right now,” he said.

Final results of the feasibility study are due to the Clark County commissioners in November.

The idea of a smokestack higher than anything else downtown, paired with visible emissions, was enough for Vancouver Councilor Pat Campbell to call for the council to stand against it.

“It doesn’t look very practical at this point,” said Campbell, who sits on the Southwest Clean Air Authority board, at last Monday’s council meeting. “It’s probably a project that should be killed immediately.”

County Commissioner Steve Stuart, however, said that it is too soon for anyone to make a judgment call on a biomass facility downtown.

“Anytime when there’s partial information, my caution is: Wait till you get the full information before forming an opinion,” Stuart said.

He said that while touring a similar facility in Seattle, there was hardly a trace of any faults.

Preferred site?

The feasibility study is looking at multiple locations, but the county is eyeing the downtown site because it already owns the property, and it’s close to county facilities, Stuart said.

The county would use the 3.75 megawatts of power at five county buildings — the Public Service Center, courthouse, jail, 911 center and the juvenile courthouse — and sell any surplus power.

It would cost $10 million to $18 million to build the plant. The county would have to borrow money to build it, but a preliminary study has shown that it would save an average of $179,136 a year, or 10.5 percent of the county’s total annual energy bill.

Computer modeling would be necessary to see just how high a smokestack in downtown Vancouver would have to be, Elliott said. The idea of a high stack is to avoid “downwash,” when smoke billows toward the ground.

“The cost factor is that it can be expensive to build,” Elliott said. “But there’s a visual aspect as well.”

And while the plant would have to be equipped with an electrostatic precipitator — a device that filters and catches most pollutants — it wouldn’t be a perfect fix, he said.

“They don’t control emissions 100 percent of the time,” Elliott said. “They don’t necessarily get turned on until an hour or a few hours after the unit has started up, and they go off before it’s done.”

The plant would not affect public health downtown, he said. His agency would approve the plan if it met clean air requirements of using the best available technologies and included a stack that’s tall enough to avoid downwash.

On the concept of a smokestack becoming the city’s newest high point, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said “my knee-jerk would be that’s not something that’s acceptable.“

However, Leavitt, a senior engineer for PBS Engineering + Environmental, said that researching new energy sources that cut the costs to taxpayers is important.

“That kind of discussion to me seems to be conjecture — there’s been no formal analysis, no environmental impact statement, no engineering,” he said. “Until we have more of that … I’ll withhold my judgment.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.

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