Opinion: Get the Dirty Sources Out of State’s Renewable Energy Program

Since 2004, Maryland residents have invested millions of dollars in renewable energy sources as we strive to create new energy sector jobs and reduce our carbon emissions in the face of the climate crisis.

For 17 years, the Renewable Portfolio Standard has promised to invest ratepayers’ money into new and expanding renewable energy, but dirty energy sources hold it back from meeting that goal. As the state seeks to spur recovery from COVID-19 and spend public money wisely, it is time to address the polluting, carbon-intensive energy sources that remain a big chunk of our Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Under our state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, money from our utility bills goes to buy Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs, intended to subsidize and increase the amount of renewable energy in our electricity supply. But about 40% of energy subsidized by this program comes from dirty energy sources, including black liquor (a waste product burned in paper mills), woody biomass and trash incineration. Changing the program to ensure that Maryland residents’ “renewable energy” money goes to truly renewable energy, not these polluters, could be a key part of our post-COVID economic and environmental recovery.

A lot of Marylanders’ money is being wasted on these dirty energy facilities that aren’t creating new jobs. A new report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility finds that Maryland consumers have paid more than $200 million since 2008 for “renewable energy” from dirty energy sources. In 2019 alone (the most recent year for which data is available), Maryland families paid $32 million for RECs from polluting facilities that aren’t truly renewable.

Who benefits?

Well, much of the money provides a windfall to multinational paper companies that power their operations with black liquor and wood waste. These subsidies do not reward new technology investments; they simply go toward a fuel source that would be operating anyway.

Likewise, another source of dirty biomass RECs is a Virginia power plant owned by Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative. NOVEC uses the electricity to supply its customers but sells the RECs to Maryland electricity suppliers. Selling the RECs to this and other out-of-state power plants means greater profits for the companies that run them, paid for by Maryland customers.

Maryland also subsidizes three trash incinerators as “renewable energy:” one in Baltimore, one in Montgomery County and one in Lorton, Virginia. Burning trash to make energy emits greenhouse gasses, nitrogen oxides and dangerous neurotoxins, such as mercury and lead. It also creates an especially dangerous set of compounds called dioxins, a known human carcinogen also linked to diseases of the immune system, endocrine system, nervous system and reproductive system. Air pollutants from waste incinerators have also been shown to increase the risk of pre-term births, and lung and blood cancers. Trash incineration is neither renewable nor clean – it pollutes nearby communities and contributes to climate change.

Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Grassroots groups across the state have campaigned for years to prevent multiple new incinerators from being built, a fight made harder by the state’s explicit blessing of these facilities as “renewable.” That fight continues against the existing incinerators in Baltimore and Montgomery County.

When Maryland removes trash incineration from the RPS, it will not shut these incinerators down; they will still be able to operate as they did before the RPS was created. These incinerators operated for decades without these subsidies. But it will fulfill community demands to put our renewable energy subsidies into energy sources that are helpful, rather than harmful, to our environment and to people. The Montgomery County government has even asked the state to end incinerator subsidies for the past several years, even though the county government itself receives these “renewable energy” subsidies for its incinerator, because the county knows it is the right thing to do.

It’s not surprising that, with these dirty energy sources making up so much of the pie, analyses of the Renewable Portfolio Standard paint a bleak picture.

In a 2019 report, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found that the sources used for Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard actually had worse pollution profiles than non-RPS sources since 2010. The report found the renewable energy program contributed to a decline in Maryland’s electric sector carbon emissions of less than one percent. And of the RECs used to meet the RPS standard in 2017, those attributed to black liquor (43%) and trash incineration (21%) all came from facilities that existed prior to the creation of the RPS program in 2004: meaning that those public subsidies are just padding the profits of facilities that existed already, rather than spurring new renewable energy development.

Jennifer Kunze, Maryland program manager at Clean Water Action.

Spending “renewable energy” subsidies on old, dirty energy facilities is a tragic missed opportunity, but it is one Maryland could fix this year.

We are glad to see legislation to remove black liquor from the RPS moving forward. That’s an important first step – but the General Assembly should also listen to the long and loud demands of communities fighting trash incineration and remove incineration from the RPS this year, too. Communities across Maryland demanding this change have waited long enough.

Removing dirty energy from our renewable energy program would open more space for clean sources like wind and solar, which are among the cheapest forms of energy available today. For job-seekers, careers in wind and solar energy often pay better than the retail sector jobs that vanished in the COVID era.

There is no reason struggling Maryland families should spend millions of dollars subsidizing polluters. Let us get all the dirty sources out of Maryland’s renewable energy program and start supporting real clean energy jobs.

— TIM WHITEHOUSE AND JENNIFER KUNZE

The writers are, respectively, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Maryland program manager at Clean Water Action.