Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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In Our View: Biomass? Downtown?

City councilors should keep the heat on and demand answers from county officials

The Columbian

Vancouver city councilors are properly suspicious about a biomass power plant that Clark County commissioners are studying for downtown, across the street from the jail. This proposal warrants two separate but related “not what we had in mind” reactions from local citizens.

Biomass energy production holds great potential as a renewable energy source because it burns leftover wood byproducts that would otherwise rot or be consumed by forest fires.

In fact, The Columbian has editorially supported continued research into biomass technology, especially in the wood-rich Northwest. And two years ago we applauded then-U.S. Rep. Brian Baird for leading the effort to include language in federal legislation that classified biomass as a self-sustaining energy source. But a biomass power plant in downtown Vancouver? Not what we had in mind.

Second, the continuing campaign to revitalize the heart of the city should focus on a diverse package of residential, commercial, office and public-use attractions. A panoply of activities and endeavors. But a biomass power plant in downtown Vancouver? Not what we had in mind.

County commissioners have not reached a final decision on the project. More than once, they’ve discussed the issue with members of the Vancouver City Council, who must approve a zoning change for the project to go forward. City staff also would have to approve permits. The latest connection between the two governing bodies occurred Monday, and, fortunately, the city councilors continue to express severe doubts and valid concerns about going forward with this project.

Chief among the skeptics is Councilor Pat Campbell, who has proposed dropping the idea altogether. On Monday, after county officials extolled the virtues of the downtown biomass plant, Campbell wisely responded, “You’ve made it an adversarial process by just giving us positive notes. I have a problem with that. We can’t make our decision on skewed information. So for me, we’re dead in the water.” And Councilor Jack Burkman described a biomass plant at the University of South Carolina that hasn’t been operational for three years. Other sites have had problems getting wood products delivered to the power plants. Still other projects have been unable to burn the fuel hot enough to create sufficient steam.

Multiple questions

Another legitimate concern: What would a large smokestack do to the downtown skyline?

Yet another is traffic congestion: How many new trucks would be rumbling downtown to deliver the wood fuel?

Then there’s the potential for air pollution. County officials insist modern equipment would meet strict emissions standards, but we wonder how long that compliance would last. After all, it was only last year that the Albina Fuel plant just a few blocks away on West Eighth Street was ordered by the Southwest Clean Air Agency to install new equipment and reduce emissions.

All of these concerns apply to the present. But what about the future of a downtown where revitalization efforts continue? How, for example, might a nearby biomass power plant affect the $1 billion waterfront development project?

We’re glad county officials are trying to save money, perhaps more than $170,000 a year on energy production for use in five buildings, but remember also the $225,000 already spent to study the project and the $10 million to $18 million that likely would be needed for construction.

We wouldn’t completely close the door on this project, nor should city councilors. Yet. But county commissioners face a monumental task in trying to convince justifiably leery Vancouver city officials — and the public — that a downtown biomass power plant is a good idea.