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Patrick Woodall of Food and Water Watch tells Dharna Noor that Maryland’s renewable energy policies are “cleanwashing” dirty energy sources like trash incineration and wood burning

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

Maryland is sometimes touted as an environmental leader, but the state’s renewable energy policy was just given a failing grade. A new study from Food and Water Watch assessed 29 states’ renewable portfolio standards, which set goals for renewable energy sold in each state, and define what counts as renewable. Maryland’s RPS standards subsidize five energy sources which Food and Water Watch consider ‘dirty.’.

Joining me to talk about this is Patrick Woodall, the research director at Food and Water Watch, who worked extensively on this report. Thanks for coming on today, Patrick.

PATRICK WOODALL: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

DHARNA NOOR: So before we get into the specifics of the report, what exactly are these renewable portfolio standards, or RPSs? Where did they come from, and how exactly do they work?

PATRICK WOODALL: So they’re state energy policies which direct utilities to source or generate a portion of their energy from renewable sources. But they also set the definitions of what counts as renewable. All the policies count wind and solar, but others count a huge number of what we think of as ‘dirty’ renewables, which are combustion-based. They include garbage incinerators, waste methane from landfills, and things like that. So those two elements, the target as well as what is in the portfolio itself, establish what the policies do.

And generally these are policies that have an enormous potential. About 50 percent of the renewable energy that’s come online since 2000 have been attributable to the state renewable energy portfolio standards. But obviously they could be a lot better. The national average goal is about 25 percent renewable energy, and obviously that target needs to be up to 100 so that we can really move to the climate-curbing policies that we need. And we need to expel the dirty energy sources from these renewable portfolios.

DHARNA NOOR: And what exactly were your criteria? What’s considered ‘dirty,’ and how exactly did you come up with these grades? I mean, Maryland and six other states got failing grades.

PATRICK WOODALL: Sure. And the reason that Maryland got a failing grade is because it has a pretty terrible target. It aims to get 25 percent renewable by 2025. And we know that we need to be on a much more accelerated goal than that. We need to have 100 percent renewable by wind and solar and geothermal and tidal energy alone. It has a very dirty portfolio standard. It has five of the six things that we consider are ‘dirty’ energies; five of the seven things. And it has a very slow transition to wind and solar power.

And part of that is because you have a kind of- you allow a lot of dirty energy sources to count as renewable, and that makes it harder to create the incentives you need to get real clean renewable power. So we looked at kind of three things: What the goal was, whether it was hitting 100 percent renewable energy; what was the mix of energy sources; and then what their transition target was projected to be for wind, solar, and geothermal alone.

And on all of these areas, 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 count burning garbage and poultry litter as renewable energy. They count waste methane from landfills and factory farms as renewable. They count this, 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 the states that have them.

So on those metrics, I mean, Maryland’s RPS program is pretty weak. And right now it generates more than half of its power from coal and natural gas. The majority of its renewable power, so-called renewable power, is currently coming- the leading source of renewable power is garbage incineration. And so you have these garbage incinerators which are huge emitters of carbon dioxide and climate gases, but also air pollutants that are very dangerous and public health threats. And most of these garbage incinerators are in lower-income and communities of color. So they have a serious effect on the most pollution-burdened communities in the state. So these are big problems, but they’re all counted as renewable, and that’s definitely problematic. Maryland needs to get rid of these dirty sources and increase its goal.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, our incinerator here, the Bresco or Wheelabrator incinerator is the largest polluter in the whole state. You mentioned our renewable energy credits. And in the Baltimore Sun, Scott Dance pointed out that a study from Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility demonstrates that renewable energy incentives in Maryland don’t actually require utilities to buy electricity from wind or solar farms or other clean energy sources. So they’re not doing a great job promoting the transition to a green energy grid.

But talk a little bit about why exactly you’re not considering these sources renewable. Because, you know, some people would say that trash, while maybe not, you know, the cleanest source of energy, incineration not maybe the cleanest source of energy, and while it does have harmful public health effects, is renewable because we’re going to continually generate more and more waste. So talk about what exactly the criteria for something being renewable is and should be.

PATRICK WOODALL: So that’s why we call these dirty energy sources ‘cleanwashing,’ right, because they’re nominally renewable. We are not running out of garbage or running out of sewage. But that doesn’t mean that they’re clean energy sources or that they have any place in any kind of renewable energy portfolio and program. So we think they absolutely need to come out. They are, in many of these sources, emit more carbon dioxide than comparable fossil fuel plants. What we need to do to really curb the worst effects of climate change is to reduce the number of carbon emissions. But these renewable energy sources under the Maryland system are actually substantial carbon emitters.

So we know that for wood-fired power plants and garbage incinerators and poultry litter incinerators, they are major carbon emitters. But they’re also major air polluting emitters, and have serious public health effects on their immediate neighbors, and of course more broadly as they spew these pollutants. And they get to to cleanwash the sources because they’re counted as renewable. The reality is that the kind of renewable idea, that it be solely something that we’re not running out of, is only helpful on that context. But it’s not helpful on climate. It’s not helpful on air pollution. They’re not clean energy sources.

DHARNA NOOR: And this past March, Maryland lawmakers actually vetoed an expansion of our state’s RPS. It’s worth noting that combinatorial incumbent Larry Hogan, who is sometimes called a green Republican, or you know, a sustainable policy advocate because he signed things like the fracking ban into law, didn’t support this expansion, either. So what would that expansion have done, and would it have boosted Maryland’s grade?

PATRICK WOODALL: So I think it would have increased the target, and would have done some things related to what was in the portfolio. So I think it probably would have affected the grade had they done that, if they had increased the goal. And in fact, a couple of states did change their RPS programs while we were writing this report. So states have the opportunity to revisit these programs and to strengthen them, and that’s something we encourage every state to do to get to 100 percent renewable, and to make sure that renewable energy is actually clean energy.

DHARNA NOOR: And the States that Food and Water Watch says are doing the best are Hawaii and Vermont. But they still only got Bs. So talk about what’s working in those states, but also how they could boost their grade to an A.

PATRICK WOODALL: So, obviously, same criteria for everybody. Hawaii has a target of 100 percent, which is what we think is needed. And Vermont has a 75 percent target, which is much better than most states. Three times higher than the typical state and three times higher than Maryland’s target. They also have dirty energy sources in their portfolio. Less than Maryland, and less than Ohio and Pennsylvania, which also included clean coal, and Ohio included nuclear power. So cleaning their portfolio and raising the target are the best things to do. The reality is that the states with the strongest targets and the best and cleanest portfolios also seem to be the states that were transitioning the most rapidly to wind, solar, and geothermal power alone. And so those kind of stronger portfolios seem to to help incentivize and direct real clean power that we need for a just transition to carbon-free energy.

So in Maryland, Maryland’s only projected to generate 9 percent of its power from wind and solar alone by 2038, over the next two decades. It’s about 3 percent now. And so that really is not enough to address the worst impacts of climate change. And fixing the RPS program is one way to do it. It’s- you know, this is a part of a renewable energy and climate policy, but it’s an important part, and one that can work.

DHARNA NOOR: But 21 states don’t even have RPS standards. They don’t get any subsidies to renewables at all. And so should even states that aren’t doing the best be given some credit for at least having a standard like this? Or would you say that it’s kind of doing more harm than good?

PATRICK WOODALL: So I don’t think it’s necessarily doing more harm than good. The question is whether it’s really helping that much when you have a program that is as weak as Maryland’s is. You know, there are 21 states that don’t have a mandatory program. A few of those have voluntary programs which we think absolutely must be mandatory. All the states need to have a mandatory program. They need to increase their target goal to 100 percent. And they need to expel these dirty energy sources from their renewable portfolio.

So obviously it’s better that Maryland has something to work with than nothing at all. And there are, and there are some elements that can be improved. And we would urge the Maryland legislature to do just that.

DHARNA NOOR: And can you talk about how that could be done? Who has the power to change the RPS, and what should we be pushing for in these standards?

DHARNA NOOR: So I think the legislature definitely has the power to do it. These are all statutory things. And the things that should be done are increase the target to 100 percent, and to get rid of some of these dirty power sources that are currently counted as renewable. I mean, the reality is that there are big industries that are proponents of their system, and they would like to receive the benefit of being counted as renewable. And that includes the garbage incineration, and the wood-fired power plants, and the poultry industry trying to build poultry litter incinerators on the Eastern Shore. We need to make sure that those, the portfolio is genuinely clean. There are a number of states that have done specific targets for things like rooftop solar and offshore wind, which are good policies to pursue as well.

So there are ways to fix it. They would have to happen at the state legislature. We worked to do that last year, and we will continue to do that in the future.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, as you do and as some progress is made here or new legislation comes up, please keep us in the loop, Patrick. Thanks so much for joining us today.

PATRICK WOODALL: We absolutely will. Thank you so much.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the The Real News Network. A reminder that we’re at the very end of our summer fundraising campaign. So if you haven’t donated please do so, because without you we can’t make Real News.

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Patrick Woodall is Research Director and Senior Policy Advocate for Food & Water Watch. Patrick has been a public policy analyst, researcher and advocate on economic justice issues in Washington for more than two decades, including extensive work on mergers and consolidation throughout the food system.