Development Deterrent

Washington County biomass moratorium quashes project.
By Anna Austin | April 29, 2011

In late December, the board of commissioners in Thurston County, Wash., adopted a one-year moratorium on permitting new biomass power facilities to give them time to investigate environmental concerns surrounding biomass energy. In particular, the sustainability of sourcing wood debris and airborne emission levels from the conversion process.

The decision was influenced by local opposition groups who were protesting area biomass projects, including Evergreen State College’s biomass gasification plant and Adage LLC’s 55-megawatt (MW) power plant in Mason County. Adage’s project was cancelled, but not because of opposition or permitting challenges, according to the company. However, Evergreen’s project was derailed largely because of the moratorium.

Evergreen, which already purchases all of its electricity from renewable resources, still uses natural gas for heat. Several years ago, to meet its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2020, the college began exploring options to replace natural gas. After investigating several renewable options, it was determined that biomass gasification had the best potential to meet the desired criteria. In the fall of 2010, Evergreen’s Sustainability Task Force began conducting a feasibility study.

Though the study has yet to be completed, the project is off the table. In a letter to the college administration, the university’s Sustainability Council Chair Steve Trotter reported that the project would decline a $3.7 million grant from the Washington Department of Commerce, and withdraw a capital grant request from the state budget process.

Trotter says the task force declined the grant because the moratorium leaves the project unable to proceed for nearly a year, and also leaves the status of future codes and permitting related to biomass too uncertain.

 “The decision is not based on the merits of the project itself,” Trotter writes. “We have not yet completed our report, but I can say that our preliminary findings from more than a year of work indicate that the project could meet many of the environmental, operational and economic criteria the college established for a replacement of natural gas for campus heating.”

The project feasibility report (expected to be completed in late April) will not answer every question about biomass gasification, but it should provide a valuable resource to others or to the college should it decide to revisit this proposal in the future, Trotter says.

The moratorium shouldn’t prompt neighboring counties to adopt similar measures, according Tim Sheldon, a Washington state senator and one of three Mason County commissioners, who says he doesn’t think it will affect Mason County, which is just north of Thurston County, at all. “Mason has about one-fifth of the population of Thurston, and only one incorporated city,” he says. “Green Diamond Resources owns about a third of the timberland in Mason County, with the federal government owning the other third and the rest privately owned. It’s got a long wood products history, several large sawmills, and existing biomass [facilities].”

Even though the Adage project had its opponents, they were a small minority, Sheldon says. “The Simpson Timber Co. is planning an expanded biomass project at its mill (the company operates a 31-MW biomass cogeneration plant at its pulp and paper mill in Tacoma, Wash.) and it has already received a determination of nonsignificance by the city of Shelton on its environmental application. I’m hopeful it moves forward, and that it brings new jobs and technology to our timber-dependent county,” he says.