Vancouver city council moratorium aims to quash biomass project

By Anna Austin | October 13, 2011

In what Marlia Jenkins, Clark County (Wash.) program development manager, describes as an amazing turn of events, the Vancouver, Wash., city council has voted to place a six-month moratorium on a project to build a central heating biomass plant in the city’s downtown area.

The moratorium, which came as a surprise at an Oct.10 city council meeting, was enforced just before a hearings examiner was about to rule whether the county and its project partner, Schneider Electric, would be in violation of a city zoning ordinance. In August, the city declared that the site zoning prohibits such buildings, as only commercial and light-industrial buildings are allowed. Schneider Electric appealed the decision, making the case that the building is no different than others that are in the same zone.  

If the moratorium stays, it doesn’t matter what the zoning ruling is. “What they’ve really done is short-circuited their own hearings examiner’s decision,” Jenkins said. “Win or lose, their objective is to keep us from building it by imposing a moratorium and changing the zoning code during the next six months so that this facility will not be allowed there. They have been very clear about the fact that that’s what they intend to do.”

The plant is a partnership between Clark County and power utility Schneider Electric, and would replace 11 fossil fuel boilers with one central facility powered by contracted, locally sourced forest debris.

Clark County owns the proposed plant site and would lease it to Schneider Electric, which has proposed to finance, build and operate the facility in exchange for a contract to provide heating and cooling to five downtown buildings. The 5 megawatts of electricity produced would be sold to the grid.

While Clark County and Schneider Electric have promised to keep emissions to a minimum, build an aesthetically appealing facility and save taxpayers about $11 million over the next 20 years, the city doesn’t want the project there, claiming it would be straying from a plan it adopted in 2007 to lean away from industrial development downtown.

A small amount of public opposition--a group of about 30 people--may have helped influence the city council’s decision. “It’s a group from Washington that opposes these types of projects,” she said. “They came into town, had a rally and recommended local people to come out against these projects and do so in a violent manner.”

Other than the land-use issue, the rest of the project is going really well, according to Jenkins. “We’ve made really good progress on lining up a fuel supply, we have the interconnection study mostly done and we know what we need to do, and Schneider Electric is going out for design bids and has some power purchasers on the line.”

But it’s unclear whether the project will move forward, even if the moratorium is lifted at a public hearing in two months.

One reason the project could face further difficulty is because it was relying on the Recovery Act 1603 Program, which provides qualifying renewable energy projects with a 30 percent grant if it construction has begun by the end of 2011. “It’s Schneider’s decision, but the timing is such that we won’t be able to meet that deadline,” she said. In the project is discontinued Schneider will lose the money they invested in predevelopment, and the facility will remain vacant. “We use it as a warehouse, and we’ll simply continue to do that.”

Schneider's legal team is reviewing the moratorium to determine whether or not the city council's move was legal.