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A Burning Question: Should Waste-to-Energy Qualify as Renewable?

When you think about renewable energy sources, what comes to mind? Solar panels or wind turbines, maybe even hydropower? You're probablythinking about trash.
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When you think about renewable energy sources, what comes to mind? Solar panels or wind turbines, maybe even hydropower? You're probably NOT thinking about trash, or to be more precise, municipal solid waste.

Covanta Energy wants you to think differently. They already turn your trash into energy and New York State already calls it renewable. Now they want New York to add Waste-to-Energy (WtE) production into the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).

This has 'problem' written all over it. Here's why.
Across the country, 33 states have RPSs, policies states use to ensure that certain levels of renewable energy production are met, although the definition of 'renewable' varies. Federal law recognizes WtE technology as renewable and so do the laws of 26 states (including New York), the District of Columbia and two territories, but only 21 states (not New York) and the District of Columbia have added WtE to their RPS. New York's RPS goal is to obtain 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Technologies currently in New York's RPS include biomass, landfill biogas, hydroelectric (the predominant technology) and wind. Covanta wants the state to add WtE into that 30 percent mix.

According to the Energy Recovery Council, nationwide there are 87 WtE plants with a power-generating capacity of nearly 2,700 megawatts of electricity. These facilities generate approximately 17 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year -- enough to power approximately two million American homes. This type of energy is considered baseload power that can operate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.

To find out how Waste from Energy works, check out page 6 of Covanta's 2009/2010 Corporate Sustainability Report.

According to Covanta, for every ton of municipal solid waste burned in the WtE process:
  • 520 kWh of power are generated;
  • 500 lbs of metal are recycled;
  • The need to import one barrel of oil or mine one-quarter ton of coal is avoided;
  • Almost one ton of greenhouse gasses are avoided; and
  • There is less reliance on landfills and shipping waste over large distances.
Sounds pretty great, right? But consider this. It's basically another form of incineration and, as is the case with all incineration, it comes with
. In fact, when the trash being burned contains items like household batteries and tires, the emissions can be quite toxic. Heavy duty pollution controls help minimize emissions, but

Adding WtE to New York's RPS could have several unintended consequences beyond air emissions issues.

If WtE were added to the RPS it would become eligible for funds paid for by ratepayers at approximately 25 cents per month and totaling approximately $175 million. According to the Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Adrienne Esposito, "[WtE] facilities could receive funding under the RPS, redirecting limited funds away from legitimate renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. "

In addition, there could be less incentive for the state as well as local municipalities to create effective waste minimization solutions such as waste prevention, composting and recycling. Cases exist where municipal recycling is not promoted or is even discouraged because waste management contracts require municipalities to deliver a minimum volume of municipal solid waste to incineration companies.

By adding WtE to the RPS, New York State could get burned. WtE is a treatment for the symptoms of our desire for too much energy and our generation of too much trash. Let's stop treating symptoms and start treating causes. Let's start thinking in terms of improving on truly renewable energy solutions and finding and implementing effective waste management options, instead of using ratepayers' money to burn garbage.

Read Covanta's Petition to the Public Service Commission of New York and call or email the commission by Friday, August 19 to let them know what you think.

Originally posted on Ecocentric blog.

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