Clark County environmentalist seeks utility commission seat

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Don Steinke believes the shifting dynamics in energy will require the county’s public utility district to focus on conservation and a move away from fossil fuels in the coming years.

Steinke has filed to run for Clark Public Utilities’ District 2 seat on its board of commissioners. 

A former science teacher, he has been most involved in the push against fossil fuel-related projects in the last decade.

Steinke is also a common sight at CPU commissioner meetings. He said he’s been interested in the utility district since the energy crises of the 1970s.

Steinke said he didn’t initially intend to run, but when no one else stepped up to run against incumbent Nancy Barnes, he felt motivated to throw his hat into the ring. Barnes’ district represents southeast Clark County. She is one of three commissioners who oversee the utility. CPU serves more than 213,000 electricity customers and 37,000 water customers in Clark County, according to the utility website.

Steinke said he was persuaded by a friend who told him his familiarity with the utility and his name recognition made him the best candidate. Through his environmentalism, he was involved with the opposition of oil-by-rail facilities in Vancouver, which were ultimately defeated.

He said if approved, the facility would have had a large amount of trains carrying fossil fuels daily passing through Clark County.

“I thought to myself that’s not safe and that’s not the quality of life we want for Clark County,” Steinke said.

He added he was also involved in opposition to the proposed methanol production facility in Kalama, which was put to an end last year.

Steinke said his key focuses are to keep utility costs down by avoiding risky investments, looking into renewable energy sources and ramping up efficiency programs. He noted CPU does have efficiency programs in place, but if Steinke is elected, he would like to see more programs.  

“There was a time when conservation meant ‘be cold, wear jackets in the house.’ It doesn’t mean that anymore. It just means do things smarter,” Steinke said. 

He said he’s constantly noting energy inefficiencies by businesses in the area.

“My wife gets tired of me pointing out energy waste when I see it,” Steinke said.

About 30% of CPU’s electricity is generated from its gas-fueled plant on Lower River Road. Steinke mentioned the Clean Energy Transformation Act committed the state to electricity generated free of fossil fuels by 2045, meaning the plant will have to eventually be phased out. 

“There’s that perfect storm where they have a huge increase in demand for the next 25 years, while at the same time, they’re having a reduced ability to provide for that demand,” Steinke said. “Somebody needs to be on the inside there (on the board) promoting preparation for those changes.”

Steinke said he foresees a greater reliance on electricity through uses like electric cars and heat pumps. Part of that is due to Washington adopting California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate for trucks, which requires manufacturers to make a certain percentage of new vehicles electric.

Steinke said CPU could do what other energy providers have done by investing into charging stations, which would increase the customer base for those plugging into CPU’s infrastructure.

Chief among Steinke’s proposals for renewable energy is solar power. He said the price of solar energy has dropped significantly in recent years, outpacing initial estimates by decades. 

Steinke acknowledged the Pacific Northwest isn’t as conducive to solar energy as other parts of the U.S., but he said given the cost reductions and the cost to transmit solar power from elsewhere, building that infrastructure locally makes sense.

He noted CPU’s community solar project off of state Route 503. He has looked at new laws at the state level which might lead to opportunities to expand the utility’s efforts.

Steinke said the utility has a lot of areas it performs well in, like customer service and the restoration of power after an outage. Due to CPU’s reliance on other sources for power, he said smart investments would help keep the utility’s rates low.

“They don’t have much say about their rates except to avoid costly mistakes,” Steinke said.



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