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Energy & Environment

Lawmakers Again Consider a Bill to End Clean Energy Subsidies for Trash Incinerators

The Wheelabrator incinerator in Baltimore has been targeted by environmental and community groups. Photo by Ian Round.

Maryland lawmakers are again trying to remove energy generated by burning trash from the state’s “clean energy” classification that qualifies trash incinerators for subsidies paid for by electricity customers.

“As an unabashed supporter of the free market, I quite frankly see this as corporate welfare at worst,” said Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick), lead sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would remove energy generated by burning trash from the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.

“We should not treat trash incineration the same as we treat wind and solar,” he told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Hough stressed that the bill would not ban trash incineration, but simply remove the state’s clean energy subsidy.

Maryland set up the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard in 2004 to encourage a gradual transition to renewable energy sources, requiring energy companies to subsidize solar, wind and other clean energy sources by purchasing a specific percentage of renewable energy credits every year or pay a fee. Utility companies pass the cost of renewable energy credits to ratepayers on their electricity bills.

When the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard program started, trash incinerators were ranked in a lower tier of renewable energy, below wind, solar and geothermal power, and subsidies for that lower tier were set to end by 2019. But in 2011, industry lobbyists argued that waste-to-energy facilities should be moved to the highest tier alongside solar and wind energy because trash incineration helps divert waste from landfills which produce methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas. They succeeded.

“But trash incineration is a false solution to that problem,” as it does not produce clean energy, said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland program manager for Clean Water Action. “It doesn’t solve the pollution problems that landfills have — it emits greenhouse gasses and puts a lot of health-harming pollution into the local atmosphere,” she continued.

The purpose of the RPS is to help transition the state to use less carbon intensive fuel sources and mitigate climate change impacts, so the energy sources that the state subsidizes should be judged on how well they are helping Maryland achieve that goal, Emily Ranson of Clean Water Action, told the committee. And burning trash moves in the opposite direction of that goal, she continued.

Burning trash also endangers public health, as exposure to even small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin, can cause serious problems in digestive, immune and nervous systems. One study showed that communities living near trash incinerators had increased risk of pre-term births and lung and blood cancers.

The trash incinerator in Baltimore that is operated by Wheelabrator Technologies produced 37 times more mercury, per energy unit produced, than the average fossil-fuel fired plant, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. The trash incinerator in Montgomery County, operated by Covanta, released 11 times more mercury than the average fossil-fuel fired plant.

Kunze said the real solution to waste management is to expand composting and recycling facilities across the state, because composting food captures and stores carbon dioxide in the soil and prevents it from getting into the atmosphere and because recycling conserves more energy than incineration produces. But recycling and composting facilities do not qualify for state subsidies because they do not produce any electricity.

Because of the extra financial boost trash incinerators get, composting and other zero waste strategies cannot compete fairly, hindering the development of more zero waste facilities in the state, she continued. Last year, the legislature passed a bill that requires large producers of food waste — such as large grocery stores and fresh produce distributors — to divert waste from landfills to a compost facility available to them, in order to spur the development of more compost facilities.

Trash incinerator operators testified against the bill, arguing that energy produced by burning trash provides the state with a clean baseload energy, as waste-to-energy facilities operate during all hours while solar and wind are intermittent energy sources, dependent on the sun and wind.

“Whether we like it or not, waste has environmental impacts,” said Pamela Kasemeyer, executive director of the Maryland Delaware Solid Waste Association. “You want to incentivize [waste management facilities] to produce energy out of that methane, not just let it out into the air.”

Kasemeyer contended that energy produced by the Wheelabrator incinerator in Baltimore provides most of the energy needed to cool buildings in downtown Baltimore.

“And it produces a lot of asthma attacks,” Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) retorted.

Hough has worked for years to remove waste-to-energy facilities from the state’s clean energy classification but has faced political opposition. Last year, Hough tried to attach an incinerator amendment to the bill that removed “black liquor” from the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, but Democratic lawmakers said it was too big of an issue to be attached to another bill.

This legislative session, advocates also took exception to other energy sources in the highest tier of Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard — including energy produced by burning chicken manure, food waste, and woody biomass. HB 11 would have removed these energy sources from the definition of clean energy that qualifies for subsidies, but the bill was withdrawn by its sponsor on Monday.

Some have argued that the state needs a diverse group of clean energy sources for the state to realistically reach its ambitious climate goals. Maryland’s Senate recently passed a sweeping climate change bill that would increase the state greenhouse gas reduction goal to make the state carbon neutral by 2045.