Time to rethink incinerator subsidy

A generation ago, waste-to-energy was a pretty attractive option if it meant less reliance on costly solid waste landfills to receive trash and coal-fired power plants to generate electricity. So it made sense not only to permit a facility like Baltimore’s Wheelabrator incinerator but to subsidize it.

Times have changed.

As The Sun’s Scott Dance reports in the second in his series of articles about questions surrounding Maryland’s green energy policies, the view of the South Baltimore trash-burning facility near Russell Street and Interstate 95 is quite different. Not only is there growing opposition from neighbors because of the toxic substances that pour out of its smokestack, but the notion that a trash incinerator ought to be subsidized by ratepayers — to the tune of $10 million over the last six years alone — seems counter-productive.

In 1985, when BRESCO first came on line, the prospects for renewable energy seemed limited. Solar power was mostly a novelty (thin-film photovoltaic cells hadn’t even been invented yet), and half the world’s wind power was generated at one facility: Altamont Pass in Northern California. It was also a peak year for U.S. coal consumption with nearly 60 percent of power generated by coal, a number that’s fallen below 40 percent today.

Increased use of clean energy, improved conservation and higher recycling rates have all significantly altered the energy and solid waste landscapes. And the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whether they are produced by burning fossil fuels or burning trash, has become a much higher priority. Whatever doubts policymakers may have harbored about climate change 32 years ago, the evidence in 2017 is simply too overwhelming to ignore. While some still refuse to accept that science of global warming, particularly in the age of Donald Trump, the nation’s denier-in-chief, a recently published study found even a majority of GOP voters favor policies to mitigate climate change, including regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

It’s not realistic to expect Baltimore’s trash incinerator or a similar facility in Montgomery County to be shuttered tomorrow — if only because they would leave a big hole in both waste management and power generation. But it is reasonable to expect them to operate at higher emissions standards and to gradually rely less on subsidies. As it happens, legislation is already being developed to give the Maryland General Assembly an opportunity to wean trash-to-energy off the ratepayer dole and to establish more ambitious standards for renewable energy generally.

Imagine that instead of subsidizing an incinerator that pumps hydrochloric acid, lead, mercury and formaldehyde into the air, those same dollars were directed toward wind and solar? The Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other environmental groups believe Maryland could create thousands of green energy jobs by doing exactly that. They envision Maryland joining states like California and Massachusetts in setting a target of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. It’s an idea that polls well in Maryland with some 71 percent favoring an expansion of the state’s renewable energy requirement (including 46 percent who “strongly” favor that), according to an OpinionWorks survey.

It’s certainly a concept at least worthy of debate. Advocates say it’s unlikely to cost average Maryland ratepayers more than $2 per month at most, but others may have differing opinions on that. The last time the legislature raised the renewable target (to 25 percent by 2020), it was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. Lawmakers overrode him last February, and disaster appears not to have struck. Facing an election year in 2018, Democrats may be looking for a similar fight — or not given Mr. Hogan’s continued popularity among voters. Still, the two sides might find common ground on the idea of getting tougher on incinerator emissions and getting rid of handouts, a win-win that might look nice plastered in campaign brochures.

Times change. Technology changes. Our understanding of the natural world changes, too. At the very least, elected officials need to put themselves in the shoes of those South Baltimoreans who live in the shadow of Wheelabrator, the single biggest source of air pollution in the city, and who seem to have successfully fought off an additional $1 billion trash-to-energy facility in nearby Fairfield. They worry every day about the health consequences of what comes out of that smokestack. If there are better ways to reduce both the trash stream and the nation’s reliance on burning coal to generate electricity, does it really make much sense to underwrite something as problematic as trash incinerators?

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