Is a trash burner as green as a wind turbine?

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March 17, 2003 // UPDATED 9:21 am - April 30, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

State bill would put Downtown's garbage incinerator and wind farms in same energy category

A law moving through the Minnesota legislature would allow garbage incinerators such as Downtown's Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) to be designated as a renewable energy source, like solar, wind, biomass and hydroelectric power.

By 2015, state utilities are required to get 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources. Critics say classifying garbage as renewable would make it harder to develop sources that don't produce the neurotoxic mercury or cancer-causing dioxin that trash-burning does.

"Trash is not a renewable energy resource," said Diana McKeown, Energy Program Coordinator at Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota, 326 Hennepin Ave. E. "Further subsidizing the burning of trash will only enhance its ability to compete with solar, wind, etc. Obviously that's a real problem."

Clean Water is one of a 16-group coalition opposing the move.

Minnesota law requires utility companies to offer consumers a chance to buy "green" power. McKeown says well-intentioned consumers who purchase that option will fund trash burning "when they think they're helping build a wind turbine."

Phil Eckhert, Director of Hennepin Environmental Services that operates the Downtown incinerator, said extending the renewable classification to waste-combustion facilities is only logical since methane gas captured from landfills is considered renewable.

"We've made significant improvements in the emissions control technology in recent years, and the HERC facility is well below the permitted emissions level [established by the Environmental Protection Agency] and simply not a significant cause of mercury and dioxins," Eckhert said.

According to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency maps, HERC, located at 5th Street North and 6th Avenue North, generates a plume of emissions that passes over Downtown as it is disbursed to north/northwest and south Minneapolis neighborhoods.

According to Session Weekly, a nonpartisan legislative publication, bill supporters argue that the reclassification would allow Minnesota's seven combustion facilities to double their income. Renewable energy facilities are allowed to charge more for energy they produce.

All state garbage incinerators are partnerships between county governments and private companies.

Although Eckhert has "not seen any numbers on it," he said, "I don't think [a reclassification] would have a dramatic [financial] immediate impact on the revenues for facilities."

He said the most important factor is that the state acknowledges and supports waste-to-energy as a renewable source.

In addition to generating energy, Eckhert said the HERC facility aids in landfill abatement: "Since the plant has opened we've processed enough waste into energy to fill the Metrodome about eight times -- if you think of a landfill that size, that's pretty substantial."

The House bill (House file 208) has passed through the House Regulated Industries and House Environment and Natural Resources Policy committees. The full House could consider the bill as early as Monday, March 17. The Senate version (Senate file 135) is on its way to the Senate Commerce and Utilities Committee.