Still hope for Vancouver biomass district heating plant

By Anna Austin | October 14, 2011

Just when the prospects for a biomass district heating plant planned for downtown Vancouver, Wash., were looking glum, it turns out there is hope for the project after all.

A much-anticipated decision from a hearings examiner on whether the plant would be in violation of a city zoning code has sided with project partner Schneider Electric. The hearing examiner determined that the project meets the city zoning code based on a similar use comparative analysis.

In August, the city declared that the site zoning code prohibited 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 currently in the area.

Although the zoning question has been settled, the project’s future is still unsettled. Four days before the hearings examiner ruled on the issue, the city council voted to place a surprise six-month moratorium on the downtown project. This would give the city enough time to change the zoning code so the plant would not be able to be built there when the moratorium is lifted. The moratorium also ruined project developer’s opportunity to qualify for the Recovery Act 1603 Program, which provides renewable energy projects with a 30 percent tax grant.

But with the hearings examiner’s ruling in the project’s favor, it remains viable, and Schneider Electric’s legal counsel believes the moratorium is not legal, according to David Palmer, project manager for Schneider Electric. “The project is far from dead,” he said. “The intent of the city council was clearly to quash it, but they are far from being successful. We have a strong go-forward plan and believe we will be successful in overcoming this setback.”

Even if the moratorium stands, Palmer says Schneider Electric has found a way to mitigate the financial impact of not qualifying for the 1603 Program, as additional funding has been identified from the New Market Tax Credit program.

There is still a long development road ahead for the project, Palmer said, and Clark County and Schneider Electric will continue to address public concerns. “Many opportunities exist in the near future for the community to express their concerns and ensure the project meets all necessary requirements,” he added. “These processes include but are not limited to SEPA [State Environmental Policy Act], clean air permitting, and site plan approval.”

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.