Baltimore Incinerator Could Lose Green Subsidies

By Dharna Noor.
UPDATE March 20, 2:00 PM: The Senate passed the Clean Energy Jobs Act on March 20 with an amendment to remove renewable subsidies for trash incineration. It will now go to the Senate Rules committee for approval. If it passes, it will then go to a vote in the House of Representatives.

UPDATE March 14, 11:40 AM: The Senate version of the Clean Energy Jobs Act no longer includes a provision removing subsidies for incineration. The Senate Finance Committee voted on the bill the morning of Thursday March 14. They passed the bill without the provision. The committee is set to vote on SB548, which would remove subsidies for incineration, on Thursday afternoon.

Mayor Catherine Pugh signed a bill into law on Thursday, March 7 that will impose stricter regulations on incinerators by 2022. The measure could force the city’s trash incinerator to shut down, as the facility’s owners, Wheelabrator, say it cannot be retrofitted into compliance.

Now, Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation that would stop the facility from receiving millions of dollars in green subsidies. Proponents of the legislation say the incinerator is the single largest source of air pollution in Baltimore, and that it should not qualify for renewable energy credits.

“On its own, the [legislation] to remove these subsidies will not cause [Baltimore’s incinerator] to shut down. [The incinerator] operated for decades before it began to receive them,” said Denise Robbins, Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s Communications Director.

But in combination with Baltimore’s new regulations, the state legislation could make it hard for Wheelabrator to continue operating in Baltimore. Since the facility cannot be retrofitted, the company would have to pay to build a new one while losing millions of dollars in subsidies.

“Trash incineration is already the most expensive way to manage waste or to make energy. If Wheelabrator lost their status as renewable energy, they’d stop receiving about $5 million per year,” said Mike Ewall, founder of environmental justice organization Energy Justice Network. “I’d be surprised if they stay open past 2020,” he said.

Two Senate bills and one House bill currently being considered in Annapolis aim to alter Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), the regulation that mandates how much energy must be derived from renewables and determines what qualifies for renewable energy subsidies.

One bill, HB961/SB548, takes aim at trash incineration specifically: it calls for the end of subsidies for the practice. The legislation is backed by a bipartisan coalition of legislators: It’s sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Hough in the Senate and Democratic Rep. Nick Mosby in the House of Representatives.

“It’s simply wrong for taxpayers to subsidize Maryland’s incineration plants, which are health hazards for the surrounding communities,” said Hough in a statement. “This is a prime example of taxpayers being ripped off, all for something they don’t even support.”

Lawmakers are also considering a broader piece of legislation. The Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB 516/HB 1158) aims to increase the state RPS to 50% renewable energy by 2030 and ultimately move to 100% renewable energy by 2040. The House version of the bill does not currently call for an end to incineration, but the Senate version does.
“You shouldn’t get extra credit for burning stuff,” said David Smedick, Campaign and Policy Director of Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter.

Instead, he said, more government subsidies should be given to truly green energy—ones that do not pollute. “Wind and solar is the perfect place that we should be putting our top tier incentives toward,” he said.

The Senate’s Finance Committee is set to vote on both pieces of legislation this week. In order to be sent to the House of Representatives this session, they must both move out of the Senate this week—crossover day, the deadline for bills to move out of the chamber in which they were introduced, is Monday, March 18.

Maryland is home to two incinerators, one in Baltimore and one in Montgomery County. Environmentalists say both are harmful for public health and the environment: They emit pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, mercury, and sulfur dioxide, which have been linked to asthma and other respiratory issues. Nitrogen oxide is also a greenhouse gas.

Wheelabrator, the company that owns Baltimore’s incinerator, say their facilities provide an important source of energy for the city. Steam from the incinerator is used to heat downtown office buildings. They also say their facility diverts trash from landfills, which they say lowers greenhouse gas emissions.

Del. Mosby disagrees. “Burning trash is not clean energy—in fact, it’s even worse for the climate than coal,” he said in a statement.

Environmental advocates say instead of burning trash, cities and the states should invest in zero waste practices like recycling, reuse, and composting. “This legislation will not cause Maryland’s incinerators to shut down. However, it’s important to note that disposing of Maryland’s waste in landfills is not the only alternative to the Montgomery County and Baltimore City trash incinerators,” said Jennifer Kunze, an organizer with Clean Water Action, in her testimony at a House Economic Committee hearing on Friday.

“Alternatives like composting, recycling, and reusing materials are already in existence across Maryland, and create more local economic benefits than trash incineration,” she said.

Wheelabrator Baltimore could not immediately be reached for comment.

This story will be updated.

Correction: a previous version of this story said that the Clean Energy Jobs Act would remove subsidies for polluting sources of energy such as woody biomass (burning wood residue) and black liquor (a waste product of paper mills that can be burned). Previous versions of the bill have called for removing these subsidies, but 2019’s bill does not.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.