Grappling with Going Green

The waste-to-energy incinerator debate
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 10, 2009

"Green energy," for most, is solar panels and wind turbines.

But a bill before the General Assembly would add another technology to the state's official list of renewable energy sources: the incinerator.

That's right — the garbage burner.

Now, the idea isn't as wacky as it sounds. The modern-day incinerator converts waste to energy. And it's a lot cleaner than your father's version.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that emissions for seven of eight key pollutants dropped by 88 percent or more between 1990 and 2005 after the feds imposed tighter regulations on the plants.

Walt Stevenson, an engineer with the EPA, tells the Phoenix that the modern waste-to-energy facility actually releases fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than your standard methane-leaking landfill.

But environmentalists and lefty legislators like State Rep. David Segal (D-Providence) say there is reason to be worried about the legislation, which would lift a 17-year-old ban on incinerators in Rhode Island and allow for construction of a plant at the central landfill.

Critics note that the incinerator, however clean, would still emit something. And its presence, they say, could actually discourage the development of wind and solar. Here's how:

State law requires that 16 percent of Rhode Island's electricity supply come from renewable sources by 2019. And this "renewable energy standard" has sent a message to fledgling companies specializing in wind and solar — there is a market for you here.

But if the incinerator bill passes and National Grid, the state's major electricity provider, can buy cheap "renewable energy" from a waste-to-energy plant, critics say that the Rhode Island market will be less attractive for green entrepreneurs.

Green energy business leaders, including a company that is already converting the landfill's methane gas into energy, made that very argument in a recent letter to state legislators.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that should this bill become law, it would undermine nearly a decade's worth of effective policy making by the General Assembly to foster renewable energy development and use within Rhode Island," they wrote.

But Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for New Jersey-based Covanta Energy, which is hoping to build a waste-to-energy plant in Rhode Island, says the concern is blown out of proportion.

If waste-to-energy facilities burned every piece of garbage in the country, he said, that would only produce four to five percent of the nation's energy supply. Wind and solar, he said, will not be crowded out.

And State Rep. Peter F. Kilmartin (D-Pawtucket), who introduced the legislation at Covanta's request, said he would be open to growing the state's renewable energy quota from 16 percent to, say, 21 percent, if that would ensure a better market for other green energies.

The local debate reflects a larger, national discussion over what constitutes renewable energy — a debate worth billions for those looking to expand the definition of the term: the owners of nuclear power plants, hydropower facilities, and waste-to-energy facilities.

At stake are generous government subsidies and the chance to get in on the renewable energy market in Rhode Island and 27 other states that have quotas in place. Moreover, Congress is weighing a national renewable energy standard that ups the ante even further.

Covanta, which operates 38 waste-to-energy plants in 17 states, Europe, and Asia, is the largest waste-to-energy company in the world and is deeply enmeshed in the national debate.

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Related: A win-wind situation, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, RI goes (a little) green, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, General Assembly,  More more >
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