December 28, 2014

Michigan Legislature Considers Solid Waste Addition to Renewable Energy Act, But it's a Curious Approach

“But come now, change thy theme, and sing of the building of the horse of wood, which Epeius made with Athena’s help, the horse which once Odysseus led up into the citadel as a thing of guile, when he had filled it with the men who sacked Ilion.” — The Odyssey, Homer

The Michigan Legislature is considering a bill that changes the Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act in order to “remove unnecessary burdens on the appropriate use of solid waste as a clean energy source.” The act encourages the development and use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, coal-fired power using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies and biomass. Obviously, the addition of solid waste into the fuel mix as “renewable energy” has many people up in arms.

Leaving aside the discussion of whether burning waste should be defined as “renewable energy,” what exactly is being proposed? The bill seeks to change the definition of “renewable energy resource” to add municipal solid waste and other types of wastes allowed to be placed into incinerators to be used as fuel. The bill’s opponents have focused on used tires, but the universe of potential fuels is much larger.

So, what type of technology are we talking about? Detroit residents are likely familiar with the controversial history of its own waste incinerator. EPA reports that there are 86 facilities in the United States using combustion of solid waste to generate power. This process is much more common in Europe, where 450 facilities burn nearly one-quarter of all solid waste produced there.

U.S. regulations governing air emissions still apply to these types of incinerators with EPA recently proposing new Clean Air Act regulations governing them. Practically speaking, burning some of these wastes are problematic from a technical standpoint, especially items like rubber tires, which require shredding and mixing with other types of fuels to get them to burn efficiently. But, the fact that they are commonly used here, in Europe and Asia demonstrates that waste-to-energy plants are not a novel or unique concept.

The benefits of this technology include diversion of waste from landfills to incinerators, decreasing the number of landfills and increase the lives of existing landfills. Instead of being sequestered in large confined holes in the ground where it generates methane, contaminated leachate and reduces the amount of useful space, power is generated.

The negatives are also evident. Diversion of wastes to incinerators reduces the incentive to recycle. While the Clean Air Act applies to its air emissions, no system is perfect and living in the vicinity of these facilities generates significant community objections in the form of odors, particulate matter and exposure to fugitive emissions. Further, the ash itself can be a concentrated mass of contaminants that itself needs to be transported to landfills or even reused in a variety of ways.

Ultimately, the question is not so much whether waste-to-energy facilities will continue to operate or even be built — they will. The bill does nothing to require its adoption and it’s hard to see how adding it to the definition of “renewable energy” actually reduces any “burden” to the utilization of the technology.

Looking at the act itself, it purports to encourage the following: diversify energy resources, provide greater energy security, encourage private investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and provide improved air quality to the citizens of Michigan. By adding a new purpose to the list (i.e., remove unnecessary burdens for waste-to-energy facilities), the question remains how the bill does that, exactly, as this technology is already established. The bill and its supporters really haven’t answered that question.

The bill is not reducing any “burden” on the use of waste-to-energy facilities, but providing an incentive for its use – in effect promoting it. If the technology is one that the Michigan legislature wants to promote and encourage, it should probably do so in a stand-alone bill. Shoehorning a technology into a bill that creates incentives for renewable energy is a curious way to go about it.

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