Lawmakers weigh incentives for trash-burning energy plants

While Gov. Martin O'Malley labors to overcome lawmakers' reluctance to subsidize huge wind turbines off Ocean City, another bill is steaming ahead with incentives for facilities that make energy by burning trash.

The Senate has approved legislation to provide enhanced, ratepayer-paid subsidies to new and existing facilities that generate electricity by burning household and commercial trash. A House committee is expected to vote soon on a similar measure.

"To me it's the sensible thing to do," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Senate bill's chief sponsor. The Charles County Democrat said the state needs to encourage more waste-to-energy facilities to help free up dwindling landfill space.

The O'Malley administration "strongly supports" the move, according to written testimony submitted by the Maryland Energy Administration. Boosting incentives for waste-to-energy plants will help the state achieve its goal of getting 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2022, the agency said. Now, only about 5 percent of the energy consumed in the state comes from renewable sources, according to the agency.

"Maryland needs every kilowatt possible to promote affordable, reliable and clean energy," the agency's testimony asserts.

But environmentalists oppose the measures, arguing that providing more incentives to "incinerators," as they call trash-burning facilities, will undermine community recycling efforts and weaken prospects for offshore wind energy projects. And they say waste-to-energy plants aren't all that clean, either.

"It's just bizarre that while the legislature is balking at supporting a legitimate renewable energy like offshore wind, it's seriously considering providing huge financial incentives for a destructive, expensive technology like incineration," said David O'Leary, conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter.

To meet Maryland's renewable energy goal, all the companies supplying power must get a certain percentage of it from renewable sources like wind, solar or hydroelectric dams, or else purchase "renewable energy credits" to offset their shortfall. The costs of the credits are passed along to electric customers in their monthly utility bills.

The state's three waste-to-energy facilities in Baltimore and in Harford and Montgomery counties qualify for "Tier 2" renewable energy credits under the state's law. But those are worth half or less what the top-tier credits sell for from solar, wind and other projects. The Montgomery trash burner earned $21 million last year on the electricity it produced, for instance, while getting another $430,000 by selling its renewable energy credits. Upgrading its renewable energy credits to Tier 1 could bring in another $240,000 a year, according to a legislative analysis.

Critics argue that waste-to-energy facilities generate more climate-altering carbon dioxide per megawatt than coal. And they said the U.S. Energy Information Administration ranks municipal-solid-waste burners as the priciest of all ways to produce electric power, with high capital and operating costs pushing their per-kilowatt-hour bottom line beyond offshore wind, solar or nuclear energy.

"Calling incinerators 'waste-to-energy' is a marketing ploy by the incinerator industry to peddle their wares," said Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a waste reduction group based in Washington. She said recycling waste "generally saves far more energy than burning it generates."

Environmentalists also say they fear that by letting waste-to-energy plants sell top-tier energy credits, lawmakers may lower the overall value of the credits, thereby reducing the revenues available to support other renewable energy projects, particularly offshore wind facilities.

Middleton acknowledged that the capital costs of trash-burning plants are high, but argued that like wind and solar, the fuel itself is cheap, since the trash has to be collected by municipalities anyway.

The legislator said he was skeptical of encouraging more waste-to-energy plants but changed his stance after meeting with Covanta Energy, which runs Montgomery County's "resource recovery facility" in Dickerson. The plant burns up to 1,800 tons of solid waste daily, generating enough electricity to power 40,000 homes.

Appeals also came from Wheelabrator Technologies, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., which operates the RESCO waste-to-energy plant in southern Baltimore and is seeking permits to build a new one near Frederick to burn waste from Carroll and Frederick counties.

Middleton argued that the revenue generated by burning trash to produce electricity will help offset costs of collecting residents' garbage and recycling it. Some communities, he pointed out, have recently scaled back or eliminated recycling programs because of budget squeezes.

The waste-to-energy bill won unanimous approval in the Senate. The House Economic Matters Committee is preparing to vote on a similar measure, though with an amendment to add another facility — a planned "renewable energy" power plant in the Fairfield section of southern Baltimore that would burn shredded municipal garbage, along with tires, auto parts and wood waste.

Del. Brian K. McHale, a Democrat who represents that area, said he had language added to the House bill recognizing facilities that burn "refuse-derived fuel," the term for the shredded fuel to be used in the 120-megawatt plant proposed by Energy Answers of Albany, N.Y.

Middleton, however, said he wasn't sure he could support broadening the bill to include the Energy Answers project, since it plans to burn more than municipal waste. House and Senate must adopt identical versions of a bill, so any differences would have to be worked out between the chambers.

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