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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: Pollution is not renewable energy

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

By Jorge Aguilar 

Last week, community leaders and environmentalists spoke at a state Senate committee hearing in favor of the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act (Senate Bill 590 / House Bill 718), a bill introduced by Sen. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) and Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) that would reform the state’s renewables program to stop spending millions of dollars to subsidize dirty energy sources like trash incineration and factory farm gas. But industry leaders and their allies were also on hand, making the convoluted case that pollution is actually clean energy.

The basic structure of the state law is straightforward. The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) was created in 2004 to support the development of renewable energy by requiring utilities to purchase RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) from clean energy producers. The number of credits that utilities must purchase increases over time; Maryland utilities must buy enough RECs to represent 50% of the energy they sell by 2030.

So Maryland ratepayers subsidize renewable energy development — a sensible policy to transition away from harmful air and climate pollution created by fossil fuels. But a sizable portion of Maryland’s clean energy RECs still go towards dirty energy; the current RPS considers burning trash, chicken litter and wood “renewable,” and treats factory farm methane gas the same way. Ratepayers have been forced to spend over $200 million since 2008 on these dirty energy options.

This is a problem with a simple fix: Remove those sources from the RPS, as the legislation would do.

But some voices at the hearing attempted to argue that using anaerobic digesters — a technology that uses microorganisms to create methane gas from factory farm waste — should stay in the program. They claim that this technology reduces the runoff that ultimately ends up in the Chesapeake Bay. But this is not the purpose of the RPS, and it’s not true either.

There is no argument that factory farms are a significant source of pollution that impacts our air and water. State policies like the Agricultural Nutrient Management Program aim to reduce those pollutants, but the biggest problem is that there is too much waste. Factory farm digesters don’t solve that problem. They don’t even manage the most serious pollutants like nitrogen or phosphorus, which are known to cause dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay.

As a matter of fact, anaerobic digesters could actually make our water pollution problems worse. This is because waste both goes into and comes out of a digester, and the waste that comes out is more likely to run off into water bodies.

There are no biogas facilities in Maryland that are subsidized by the RPS, but ratepayers are currently steering money to two factory farm gas facilities in Ohio — one of which has been sued by the state and has been a source of constant complaints from people who live near the facility. And a massive facility proposed in Delaware, which is already facing a civil rights violations complaint, would likely receive ratepayer funds unless the RPS is cleaned up.

The existence of these subsidies could lure other developers to pursue building additional polluting infrastructure. And that’s not even the only dirty energy subsidy in play: A state program called the Animal Waste Technology Fund already steers tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to the chicken industry, and the current RPS allows them “double dip” and double down on gas infrastructure, all while passing these costs to Maryland households.

In the grand scheme of things, it is unlikely that there will ever be a substantial amount of “biogas” compared to conventional gas. Fossil fuel companies are promoting these so-called renewable fuels for precisely that reason; their existence can be used to justify the expansion of pipelines and compressor stations. Maryland’s Office of Public Counsel has warned that replacing and expanding gas infrastructure will waste ratepayer dollars and raise costs. Supporting factory farm gas would only expedite that outcome.

There is no better time to clean up the RPS by removing subsidies that generate waste that harms our communities and the climate. Companies that profit from waste and pollution management are simply not an appropriate fit for a program designed to encourage clean, renewable power. In the spirit of how the RPS was originally written in 2004, these sources need to speed our transition to renewable energy with both “long-term decreased emissions and a healthier environment to the public at large.” We must pass the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act to do that.


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Opinion: Pollution is not renewable energy