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Mike Tidwell of Chesapeake Climate Action Network says that Maryland’s renewable energy policy is flawed, but wind and solar industries support a bill to revise it

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

There’s a scientific consensus that the use of fossil fuels like gas and coal are causing climate change and pollution, and that we need to curb our use of these forms of energy to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences like mass species dieoff and dangerous, extreme weather. With the Trump administration rolling back environmental protections. Many are looking to state governments to lead the fight. Here in Maryland, some environmental groups and the wind and solar industries are pushing the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would mandate that 50 percent of the state’s energy come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

Joining me to talk about this is Mike Tidwell. Mike is the founder and the director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Thanks for joining me today.

MIKE TIDWELL: Happy to be here.

DHARNA NOOR: So before we get into the specifics of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, could you just explain what exactly cleaner renewable energy is, and why it’s important for Maryland to make this transition?

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, clean renewable energy we all know we need to solve climate change, which means that we need to move as fast as we can to especially wind and solar power; solar power being rooftop solar or utility-scale solar farms, or land-based wind, or offshore wind power. Those are the true clean renewable sources.

DHARNA NOOR: And how would transitioning to these forms of renewable energy impact everyday Marylanders? Maybe people who aren’t familiar with environmental policy, but people who are just, you know, Maryland citizens.

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, first of all, it’s going to be a huge source of jobs. It already is. There are more people working in the Maryland solar industry today than the crab industry. So a big driver of economic growth and Maryland-based jobs. Cleaner air, obviously. And God willing, you know, if other states and other countries around the world move as fast as Maryland is moving, we can solve climate change. So it’ll be mean less sea level rise for Marylanders, less extreme storms like in Ellicott City flooding.

DHARNA NOOR: And what changes would the Clean Energy Jobs Act specifically require Maryland to make?

MIKE TIDWELL: The Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act expands the state’s renewable portfolio standard; just a fancy phrase for saying renewable energy standard. It expands it from the current law, which is 25 percent renewable energy, by the year 2020, and it would double that to 50 percent renewable energy by the year 2030. It would also invest $27 million in job creation and business incubation for minority, veteran, and women-owned clean energy businesses. So it has an equity component. It’s good for jobs. It will continue to lower the price for wind and solar power in the state, and expand the volume.

DHARNA NOOR: So again, as you said, the policy that this act would change is the RPS, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which is, again, the standard that determines what qualifies as renewable energy; how much renewable energy states have to use. And Food and Water Watch, another environmental organization, recently released this report that said Maryland’s renewable energy policy, the RPS, is problematic because it incentivizes the use of some forms of energy that are polluting, or dirty, and have negative health effects. I spoke with Patrick Woodall from Food and Water Watch about the report. Let’s listen to a clip from that interview.

PATRICK WOODALL: Maryland fell far short and was worse than the average in almost every case. So it’s, their target is 25 percent. The national average of the states we looked at was 30 percent. They have five dirties, and most states have four dirty energy sources. And Maryland has that they count burning wood as clean energy. They account for burning garbage and poultry litter as renewable energy. They count waste methane from landfills and factory farms as renewable. They count this paper milling byproduct called black liquor, burning that is renewable. And they also include these renewable energy credits, which we think are a bad component of these policies and should be phased out or eliminated for all of the states that have them.

DHARNA NOOR: So let’s unpack that a little bit. What’s your response to some of these concerns that have been raised about Maryland’s energy standards?

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, unfortunately, Food and Water Watch’s report does not describe, as I mentioned earlier, the 5000 Maryland workers who are in the solar industry today. The fact that there are, when I first put solar panels on my roof in Maryland in 2001, there were five companies that installed solar panels. Today there are over 170 solar companies. There are three utility-scale wind farms. There are two offshore wind farms coming to Maryland soon. And all of this, according to the wind and solar industries themselves, the companies that build wind and solar panels and turbines, all of this that I’ve just described is because of Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. In other words, this policy of Food and Water Watch basically says is really terrible has actually created an enormous amount of wind and solar power in the state.

Food and Water Watch never mentions that. They don’t mention the jobs. They don’t mention the wind farms. They don’t mention that the wind and solar industry support the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would actually double the RPS. Food and Water Watch, unfortunately, only picks a few states, only picks the states with RPS policies. So they don’t pick Georgia and Alabama and the states that don’t even have standards. They pick the ones that do have standards. And Food and Water Watch set up a criteria that guaranteed that most states would fail.

In other words, they said, well, which of these states with RPS policies have the goal of getting to 100 percent renewable energy? And unfortunately only one state, Hawaii, has that standard. So all the other states get dinged. But the reality is is those states that they give really bad grades to- and think about this. The states that got, like, a C, like California, an F, like Massachusetts, a D+ for New York State. These are very liberal states that are moving aggressively on renewable energy. But according to Food and Water Watch they’re doing really, really badly. And they say Maryland got an F. Well, that’s too bad. Because the reality is no policy on energy is perfect. And do these policies have flaws? Of course they do. There are loopholes.

But in Maryland, for example, the majority of the energy incentivized by our RPS is non-combustion energy. And by the year 2020, 80 percent of all the energy incentivized under our RPS policy will be wind and solar and other non-combustion energy. But if you read Food and Water Watch’s report, you would think that that the RPS is pro-pollution, anti-consumer, and ethically challenged, and people and groups that support this policy are also pro-pollution, anti-consumer and ethically challenged. It’s really too bad.

The thing that Food and Water Watch doesn’t mention in their report is that the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that’s going to pass in 2019 and has overwhelming support from legislators and nonprofit groups across the state, will, in fact, move the state further in the direction of wind and solar such that by the year 2030, 94 percent- 94 percent- of all of our renewable energy incentivized under this bill will be non-combustion energy. And we’re going to create tens of thousands of jobs. Now, are there loopholes in the law? Yes. Food and Water Watch mentions them. And if you only read their report, you’d think that this policy only incentivizes dirty energy. The reality is those dirty energy sources are a minority of the policy and they’re getting smaller every year. And the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act will remove one of the worst loopholes, which is trash incineration. Which is a problem in Baltimore, incentivizing, subsidizing trash incineration as a renewable energy. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable. The Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act removes that policy while moving the state toward 50 percent clean energy.

There are other issues, like [inaudible] and wood waste. Those are problems. But they’re a small percentage, a small percentage of the total. And I think that those loopholes will be reformed as well. And the bottom line is-

DHARNA NOOR: Reformed in the Clean Energy Jobs Act?

MIKE TIDWELL: -we’ve built a solid house for clean energy. Pardon me?

DHARNA NOOR: Those would be reformed also in the Clean Energy Jobs Act? Or they’re something that can be worked on later?

MIKE TIDWELL: The biggest loophole that the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs removes is trash incineration, while again incentivizing wind and solar. Does it take care of all the loopholes? It does not. We intend to pass this bill in 2019 reforming the trash incineration loophole, and then come back in later years, in one, two, three years, and close all the other loopholes. Unfortunately the United Steelworkers in Maryland, the AFL-CIO nationally supports paper mills and black liquor. It’s a very tough issue to remove that loophole. But the reality is that by the year 2050, if the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act passes, even if you don’t take black liquor out it’s going to be only about 2 or 3 percent of the total renewable portfolio.

DHARNA NOOR: But how how do you respond to people who say that that’s too many compromises to be making? People who might say that there are already negative effects of black liquor. There are already negative effects of woodburning in terms of the pollution created every day for people. And who say that it’s great to remove trash incineration, but that we need something that’s more aggressive, that takes more steps to eliminate more of these dirty energy sources sooner?

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, again, the wind and solar industry support the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act. There are over over 600 nonprofit groups and others, including NAACP, the League of Conservation voters of Maryland. Overwhelming majorities of legislators who support it. They supported because we need to move forward in a hurry. We need to meet our Paris climate accords and we need to get more wind and solar power in our state. This is what this bill would do.

In terms of black liquor, the paper milling and the creation of the byproduct black liquor was happening long before the RPS policy was even, came into effect. And even when you remove the, and set the incentives for that, the paper mills aren’t going to stop burning black liquor. Just like the trash incinerator in Baltimore, when we remove the subsidies for that, they’re still going to burn trash, because that trash incinerator was built before the RPS policy even came into effect. The subsidies are wrong, but removing them is just a small percentage of how these plants make money, and they will not close down just because the RPS loopholes are closed.

So the idea that suddenly all that pollution will stop the second it’ not part of the RPS is not true. What we need to do is just really double down on incentivizing wind and solar, and stop wasting our money subsidizing these these other sources like black liquor and trash incineration. And the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act takes care of the trash incineration piece, and we’re going to come back for the black liquor part in just a few years.

DHARNA NOOR: So again, the bill that you’re supporting, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, would require Maryland to have 50 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2030. Right now the RPS policy only requires 25 percent by 2030. And Maryland lawmakers rejected the Clean Energy Jobs Act in March. But they also rejected another bill, the Clean Renewable Energy and Equity Act, which would compel the state to reach 100 percent renewables by 2035. So explain the difference, and why you’re standing behind the former.

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, our bill, again, is overwhelmingly supported by the companies that build offshore wind, build land-based wind, solar panels. And that’s the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act. We all want to get to 100 percent renewable energy. Our bill in 2019 will have a feature that basically all but compels the General Assembly to move toward 100 percent renewable energy and set that goal by the year 2025.

The Food and Water Watch bill that they favor, that quote unquote 100 percent bill, was supported by a legislator named Shane Robinson, who unfortunately his voters did not re-elect him to office. And that Food and Water Watch bill was one of his number one priorities. And I think one of the main reasons he wasn’t reelected, or one of the reasons, is the Maryland General Assembly’s Legislative Services determined that that bill had an almost incalculable fiscal cost. In other words, it would be very, very expensive for average Marylanders, based on the existing data, to move to 100 percent renewable energy that fast by 2035.

Now, I believe that we could get to 100 percent renewable energy across the state probably by the year 2030 or 2035. But the existing data doesn’t support that, because they don’t anticipate the falling prices of wind and solar and battery storage. But I just think this the Food and Water Watch Bill wasn’t thought through. I think legislators were very nervous about it. And they I think they will pass the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act because he has overwhelming support, again, from industry and nonprofits and environmental groups. And I think that that bill, the 50 percent bill, is going to get us to 100 percent renewable energy much faster than the Food and Water Watch bill would have ever gotten us there.

DHARNA NOOR: So another group, Energy Justice Network, has a statement on their website where they actually- they say that since the start in 2003 we testified in Annapolis, and warned and begged Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other environmental groups not to include so many incineration technologies in the RPS. And then they say, looking back over a decade decade later, we get to say I told you so, as we see that polluting smokestack technologies have been the majority of the state’s renewable energy mix and every year, except in 2013 and 2016.

MIKE TIDWELL: That’s not true. That’s not true. So again, by the year 2020, 80 percent of the total RPS will be non-combusion, clean renewable energy. This year in 2017, that figure is almost 70 percent non-combusion clean energy. The idea that this bill, again, Food and Water Watch and other groups, if you only read the reports you would think the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act and the Maryland Renewable Portfolio Standard policy was pro-pollution, anti-consumer, and only supported by ethically challenged groups and individuals. The reality, the actual facts, are that today the majority, the large majority of energy incentivized by the RPS, is non-combustion clean energy like wind and solar. By the year 2020 it’s going to be 80 percent. By the year 2050 it’s going to be 94 percent.

So these these are policies and bills the facts show are creating solar jobs, 170 solar companies in Maryland today. Offshore wind is coming. Land-based wind. If it was a pro-pollution policy, then why would those companies be here? Why would those jobs have been created? Why would the offshore wind be coming? It’s because the policy works, and it will continue to work unless groups stop it and slow it down, in which case we’ll have more coal combustion. Because the Maryland General Assembly, I mean, the voters didn’t even reelect Shane Robinson. And I’m afraid that if we don’t move forward with the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act then we’re going to actually have more coal combustion, we’re going to have more fracking gas from Pennsylvania brought to Maryland, because we won’t have a policy that incentivizes more wind and solar power like the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act.

DHARNA NOOR: So talk about the future of this bill moving forward. Again, the Clean Energy Jobs Act was rejected last session. So does it have a better chance of passing this time around? Are there more supporters on board?

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, first of all, the idea that it was rejected last year I think is not an accurate description. It didn’t come up for a vote in the Senate, and it failed in subcommittee in the House. So we believe that it’s definitely, you know, bills don’t pass- good bills don’t pass, usually, in one year. Usually it takes two or three, sometimes four years. But a majority, a vast majority of the likely to return members of the House of Representatives, have already declared that they support the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act. A supermajority of the Maryland Senate likely return candidates support the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act. So we believe we’re going to have supermajorities in both the House and the Senate that support the bill and that it’s going to pass. And the reason it’s going to pass is because it brings an overwhelming expansion of wind and solar power at a very low cost, creating tens of thousands of jobs while helping to develop and train minority, veteran, and women-owned businesses in the clean energy space with overwhelming support from hundreds and hundreds of organizations statewide.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, Mike Tidwell, as we move forward with this bill and hear more about others we’d love to have you on again for an update on this act. Please stay in touch, and thanks for coming on today.

MIKE TIDWELL: Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network

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