Sun misses the facts on waste-to-energy

May 17, 2011

The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's once famously said in debate, "Sir, you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts." With that in mind, we take issue with the Sun's May 9 editorial on Maryland waste-to-energy (WTE) legislation ("O'Malley should trash waste-to-energy bill") which would treat WTE like other renewables, in particular landfill gas-to-energy. The legislation has passed the Maryland legislature, but your editorial urges a veto by Gov. Martin O'Malley. If the facts were as the editorial describes, we might favor a veto as well. That is not the case, however, and as a national coalition of local government owners of modern WTE facilities, we know of what we speak.

Our members and the communities we serve invested in WTE technology for one reason — it is the responsible thing to do from an environmental and energy perspective. Waste management is essential for all societies, and after maximizing waste reduction and recycling, what remains can either be sent to landfills or combusted to produce clean, renewable energy. Landfilling adds to environmental problems including greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and contributes very little to our energy supply. From virtually every environmental and energy perspective, WTE is the preferred choice.

Thus, EPA itself recommends waste combustion with energy recovery over landfilling and recognizes WTE as a renewable that produces electricity "with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity." Underscoring EPA's position, WTE recovers approximately 600 kWh of electricity per ton of waste — 10 times the electricity recoverable from a ton of landfilled waste, and is base-load, "distributed generation" (i.e., serves nearby load without the need for new long-distance transmission lines) that is unaffected by days that are cloudy or calm.

WTE also complements recycling: WTE communities routinely outperform non-WTE communities in recycling, with rates at least 5 percentage points above the national average. Maryland is an example — WTE-reliant communities are statewide leaders in recycling, including Harford County, with the state's highest recycling rate — 59.03 percent. Not surprisingly, The Nature Conservancy ranks WTE as one of the most environmentally protective alternative energy sources.

The May 9 editorial contends that SB 690 would "subsidize WTE plants for doing what they're already doing" which "benefits no one except the local governments that own the plants." While the statement on subsidy is technically correct, the attempt to make SB 690 sound sinister is invalid and, more importantly, overlooks the fact that all other renewables, including landfill gas to energy, already have the same — or a greater — subsidy. As to the suggestion that no one other than local government WTE owners will benefit from SB 690, the implication of some sort of government boondoggle could not be further from the truth. To the contrary, SB 690 recognizes that WTE facilities' costs are considerably higher than landfill costs, which requires enormous investments by local government, and the benefits are improvement of the environment, reduction in greenhouse gases, energy independence for our nation, and less reliance on fossil fuels.

The editorial also refers to landfill emissions of methane as having been "greatly mitigated" (methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming impact of the carbon dioxide emitted by WTE facilities), and implies that landfill methane is no longer a significant concern. That is not correct, however, and as the Sierra Club's January 2010 landfill gas to energy report explains, "When organic wastes are buried in landfills, methane is always produced and a substantial portion of that methane leaks into the environment." WTE, on the other hand, significantly reduces greenhouse gases compared to landfilling.

Finally, the editorial claims that SB 690 "is not about landfills." If ever there was a technically correct but completely misleading statement, that is it. SB 690 is very much about landfills because if we fail to take steps to put WTE and landfills on an equal footing, landfills will remain the dominant means of waste disposal in Maryland and the nation. Ironically, if Maryland's WTE-reliant communities had instead chosen less costly — and environmentally inferior — landfilling, they would already have the benefits SB 690 extends to WTE. Simply put, the forward-thinking local government action reflected in WTE investment should be encouraged, which is what SB 690 would do.

John R. "Doc" Holladay, Huntsville, Ala.

The writer is director of the Solid Waste Disposal Authority of Huntsville, Ala., and chairman of the Local Government Coalition for Renewable Energy.

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