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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Clark Public Utilities commissioner candidates split on path to climate goals

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 13, 2022, 7:01pm

With aggressive state requirements to become greenhouse gas emissions neutral, the future for Clark Public Utilities is green. The question is, how will the utility do it? That’s a topic the two vying for a seat on the utility’s commission were asked to speak to.

Don Steinke is a well-known local environmental activist. His intentions for running for the commission are clear — to get the utility to achieve state and local climate action goals.

The Clean Energy Transformation Act, passed by the Legislature in 2019, requires utilities’ portfolios to be greenhouse gas emission neutral by 2030, and all electricity to be 100 percent renewable or nonemitting by 2045.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver City Council approved a Climate Priority Resolution in June, calling for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the Vancouver community by 2030 and carbon neutrality by community members and city operations by 2040.

“The city has a very ambitious goal,” Steinke told The Columbian. “It would be impossible to reach that goal unless Clark Public Utilities is an eager and willing partner, and they are not.”

Steinke’s opponent, incumbent Nancy Barnes, is running on her decades of experience on the commission. She disagrees with Steinke’s characterization of the utility as unwilling to move toward achieving clean energy goals.

“This is going to happen,” Barnes told The Columbian. “We are moving to a low carbon generation economy, and we’re going to get there. We’re going to do all the things required of us and more and earlier, but we won’t do it by sacrificing reliability or affordability.”

Affordable, reliable power

For Barnes, the solution lies in implementing changes in a way that will meet the utility’s legal obligations but in a way that will mean affordable and reliable power to consumers. Part of that is the advanced metering infrastructure that the utility began work on last year. Part of that is bringing more hydropower into the utility’s portfolio. Part of that is converting  the local natural gas power plant into a flex plant, which will begin next spring. Another part, still, is conservation.

“All of our load growth in Clark County has been met by conservation and energy efficiency,” she said. “We consider conservation a source of generation.”

Steinke says that the utility has not done enough to conserve energy, pointing to parking lots he sees around the county with lights on during the daytime.

“They’ve been blind to energy conservation opportunities for the last 50 years,” Steinke said. He, too, wants more advanced metering infrastructure.

For Steinke, the utility’s evaluations of what is cost effective need to take into account the harms caused by pollution. He says the utility needs to invest in more solar power projects and incentives.

“My opponent is willing to spend $10 million on fixing up the gas power plant, but she’s not willing to spend one dime for solar,” said Steinke.

Barnes says solar power is best achieved when collecting energy as close to where it’s used as possible and that the utility already offers metering as an incentive to customers. As for the power plant investment, Barnes said the mortgage on the plant has been paid off by the customers in Clark County.

“I’m not going to walk away from that,” she said. “I’m going to convert it so that we retain the value.”

Barnes wants the plant converted into a peaking plant that can ramp up for short periods of time if a heat dome or arctic freeze has customers turning their heat or air conditioning up high.

Steinke maintains the plant is one of the largest polluters in the state.

“My opponent wants to keep that running as long as possible as much as possible and is willing to pollute west Vancouver,” said Steinke.

For Steinke, a potential solution to integrating clean energy into the utility’s portfolio is by investing in batteries to store energy.

Barnes, too, sees batteries as a future for the utility, but she says the technology is just not there yet.

“We’re going in the same direction,” said Barnes of the goals of her and her opponent. “The difference is how we get there.”

Barnes was first elected to the commission in 1992 and has been reelected four times. During her time with the utility, she’s been president of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association and currently serves as Clark Public Utilities’ representative to the Northwest Public Power Association. She’s also a board member for the American Public Power Association and serves as president of the association’s policymakers’ committee.

Commissioner roles

Barnes graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism from Brigham Young University.

Steinke taught science, including physics, electricity and electronics, computer science, biology, chemistry and energy conservation at Camas and Fort Vancouver high schools. During his years in advocacy, he’s served on the city of Vancouver’s Climate Action Roundtable Committee, the Clark County Clean Water Commission, the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal campaign and the Clark County Endangered Species Act speaker’s bureau.

Steinke got his bachelor’s degree in physics teaching from Seattle Pacific and his master’s degree from Portland State University.

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The commissioners, who serve six-year terms, represent different regions of the county. The second district represents much of east Vancouver and the eastern part of the county.

The current board of commissioners consists of Barnes representing the 2nd District, Jim Malinowski representing the 1st District and Jane Van Dyke representing the 3rd District.

The commissioners aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the utility. But they do leave their mark. The commission sets rates, approves revenue obligations, adopts system plans for electric and water utilities and establishes utility policies.

The general election will be held Nov. 8.