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Advocates pushing lawmakers to clean up Maryland's renewable energy supply

State lawmakers are drafting at least two bills for the coming General Assembly session aimed at cleaning up Maryland’s renewable energy supply, which includes polluting fuels such as household garbage and a paper-making byproduct known as black liquor.

Proponents who have backed similar legislation in previous years hope concerns about climate change improve their chances. They say recent hurricanes, President Donald J. Trump’s support for fossil fuel industries and a recent series of articles in The Baltimore Sun could motivate politicians to act. The Sun reported that a state program sends millions of dollars from electricity ratepayers to paper mills and trash incinerators, one of which is Baltimore’s largest single source of air pollution.

But environmentalists nonetheless expect an uphill battle.

The same politics and economics that helped classify the paper and waste-to-energy industries as green energy producers — making them eligible for the subsidies — will be at work when the assembly convenes in January, they said. And there will be a simultaneous push to increase the total amount of money available in renewable energy subsidies, potentially complicating the issue, they said.

The 2018 elections, however, could change political dynamics.

“We hope that this is something that people want to run on,” said Kristen Harbeson, political director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “We want to be incentivizing the energy of the future.”

Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the House of Delegates committee that will consider the legislation, said he expects a complex debate over what the state should consider renewable energy.

“It’s getting tougher to predict overall where the committee will land on that,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said.

Maryland has allowed generators of renewable energy to collect a slice of ratepayers’ electricity bills since 2004. The program was intended to give clean energy a boost, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and emission of climate-change-inducing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

State lawmakers decide what is deemed renewable energy, and the list of green sources includes not just solar and wind power but combustion of carbon-emitting fuels like black liquor, trash and landfill gas.

Those fuels have collected about $100 million in subsidies over the past dozen years. In 2015, they accounted for about half of Maryland’s renewable energy.

There are at least two factions of lawmakers and advocates who plan to push legislation during the 90-day session that begins Jan. 10 to address what they see as a contradiction. They argue that including energy sources besides solar, wind and a few other exceptions amounts to subsidizing pollution.

A coalition of hundreds of environmental and community groups that calls itself the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Initiative is already campaigning for legislation that would mandate that half of the state’s energy supply come from renewable sources by 2030. Under law adopted earlier this year, the goal is 25 percent.

The legislation would also stop sending subsidies to trash incinerators, including the Wheelabrator Baltimore facility along Interstate 95. The Baltimore City Council recently passed a resolution pressing state regulators to reduce the incinerator’s pollution, and lawmakers in Montgomery County, where the state’s other large trash incinerator is located, recently called for an end to trash incineration subsidies.

“We’re not out to shut trash incinerators down, at least my organization’s not,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “We want to stop the improper subsidizing of trash incineration from ratepayer money and calling it renewable energy.”

Del. A. Shane Robinson is pushing a more aggressive approach that would set the renewable energy mandate at 100 percent of the state’s power supply — that is, subsidizing enough renewable energy to supply all of the state’s needs, even if other sources are still used. His bill would also deny the ratepayer subsidies to anything but wind and solar power and other clean technologies that are still being developed.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he does not see any good in less sweeping legislation if environmentalists all agree their ultimate goal is full reliance on renewable energy.

“Why ask for something that is less than what you want?” he said.

Discussions on both bills are expected to start in the House of Delegates. While lawmakers are awaiting the results of a study of the state’s renewable energy supply and subsidies, which was ordered this year and is due at the end of 2018, they said they are open to hearing the proposals.

Del. Sally Y. Jameson, a Charles County Democrat who sponsored the bill ordering the study, said she is wary of making major changes without a holistic look at a program that has been updated nearly three dozen times, by her count. Davis said most of the members of his committee, House Economic Matters, were not in office or on the panel when many of those changes were considered, so that could also make it harder to pass legislation.

Much of the discussion is expected to center on the level of the renewable energy mandate and what it could mean for the economics of renewable energy investment and the cost to ratepayers. But advocates say the types of energy characterized as renewable, under what is known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard, are an important element of that debate.

“We can’t expand the RPS as it stands with all of the dirty energy,” Harbeson said.

There is sure to be some reluctance to change the policy because of concerns about jobs and economic development. The paper industry, including a mill in the Allegany County town of Luke, has for years fought to keep its subsidies — and won those battles. The debate over subsidies to black liquor has repeatedly ended in a stalemate between labor unions and environmentalists, both key constituencies for the Democrats who lead the General Assembly.

Lawmakers said they don’t expect that conflict to resolve easily in 2018.

Del. John F. Mautz IV, an Eastern Shore Republican, questioned why environmentalists keep targeting the paper mill subsidies when they seem to get no closer to cutting them off.

“Are they really serious about improving the environment, or are they just pushing a political issue?”

But supporters of the legislation say they think the time is right, given increasing fears about climate change and election-year politics.

The Trump administration is considering new tariffs on foreign-made solar panels in 2018 that some say could stunt or reverse the industry’s growth, and action on that or other energy issues could spur Maryland lawmakers into action.

“The way the Trump administration is undermining renewable energy, it emphasizes that states have to act now,” said Vincent DeMarco, chairman of the clean energy jobs group. “States like Maryland have to take the lead to protect the planet.”

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