Not all environmentalists are cheering the Maryland General Assembly's approval Monday of incentives that double down on utility customers’ investment in renewable energy.
They all agree reaching a goal of 50% green energy by 2030 would help reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change. But some say a bill approved in the final hour of the legislature’s annual session will only magnify a wrinkle in state policy that rewards carbon-emitting trash incinerators and paper mills with millions of dollars in green energy subsidies that are funded through energy bills.
“Thank you for your efforts to move Maryland towards a clean energy economy,” Caroline Eader wrote Tuesday in an email to state lawmakers.
But Eader, director of a group called Zero Waste for Zero Lost, then urged them to abandon the measure if Gov. Larry Hogan vetoes it, as some expect him to do.
“Then next year we can come together with a renewable standard that is truly clean,” she wrote.
The legislation was a central piece of environmentalists’ agenda, considered key to reversing recent declines in solar industry jobs in Maryland, and to reducing the state’s carbon footprint. It requires utilities across the state to invest increasing amounts each year in solar generation across the state and other types of renewable power projects, including wind farms, across a larger grid that covers all or part of 13 states.
Ratepayers subsidize the utility investments, subsidies that amounted to $72 million in 2017.
Supporters said this year’s legislative debate came down to a choice between standing firm on a push to end the green energy subsidies for trash-to-energy facilities, or giving it up to advance the 50% renewable energy proposal on their third try in as many years. There were also concerns among lawmakers about a loss of union jobs at those plants, and at paper mills that receive subsidies for generating power using a substance known as black liquor.
The decision became easier amid Baltimore and Montgomery County politicians’ growing resolve to close trash incinerators in their jurisdictions, said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator near Russell Street and Interstate 95 is the city’s largest single source of industrial air pollution, while burning hundreds of thousands of tons of household waste from across the region.
“We fought as long as we could,” Tidwell said of the trash incineration subsidies, which the state Senate voted to end in March. “This is a dramatic bill. The General Assembly has passed a wonderful and aggressive plan to increase solar and wind power in our state.”
Within the legislation’s 50% renewable power goal are standards to eventually generate 14.5% of the state’s power using solar panels, the loftiest of such goals around the country, and to authorize nearly five times as much offshore wind generation as state law currently allows. By 2030, roughly a third of the state’s power supply would come from a combination of other energy sources, including wind farms, trash incinerators and paper mills.
Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said advocates don’t think waste incinerators or paper mills will collect a significant portion of the increasing subsidies in the coming years.
How much they collect is based on how much energy they generate, and advocates don’t expect that power output to grow — or, at least, to grow as quickly as solar or wind generation.
And there is a chance one or both of Maryland’s municipal waste incinerators will close before 2030. Baltimore City Council in February approved stringent incinerator air pollution limits that the owners of the Wheelabrator facility say are impossible for them to meet. And Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has said he hopes to see the Covanta Montgomery incinerator in Dickerson close within the next few years.
Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said those assurances helped renew discussions in the final two weeks of the legislative session about the then-stalled renewable energy bill. Otherwise, it might not have passed.
Still, some environmental groups said they would have preferred a stronger push to reconsider what types of energy is considered “green” under the state incentive program.
Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, said some advocates assured him they wouldn’t support the bill without that sort of revision. He was disappointed when they didn’t follow through.
“We’re horrified,” he said of the version of the legislation that passed.
Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said the Republican governor would review the legislation when it’s sent to his desk later this month.
Observers say it could be the sort of bill that he might veto on principle, knowing that the Democratic majority that pushed it will vote to override him. Citing fears of increased electricity costs for consumers, Hogan in 2016 unsuccessfully vetoed the last major renewable energy policy lawmakers passed, which set the state’s current 25% green energy goal.