Question before N.H. lawmakers: Is trash a renewable resource?
New Hampshire lawmakers have been wrestling this year with a simple but charged question: Is trash a renewable resource?
The state Senate said “yes,” and passed legislation in March that would make Wheelabrator Technologies’s trash incinerator in Claremont eligible for renewable-energy subsidies. But the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee last month stripped that provision out of the bill, which makes a number of other tweaks to the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law.
“The committee simply didn’t feel that burning trash was a source of renewable energy,” said Rep. Nick Levasseur, a Manchester Democrat and committee member. “It might be sustainable, but those two words are not the same, and we decided to make a clear distinction between them.”
The amended bill will go to the House floor Wednesday for a vote, with a 16-1 endorsement from the panel.
The Senate doesn’t want to pick a fight over the trash issue and will likely concur with the House’s changes to send the bill to Gov. Maggie Hassan, said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor.
“I’ve spoken with the folks that represent the waste-to-energy facility, and while they’re disappointed, they don’t look to hold the bill up over that issue, and quite frankly that’s probably the appropriate decision,” Bradley said. “There are a lot of other things in the bill that are important to jobs and renewable energy, and I think they should come back next year with a separate bill, if that’s what they choose to do.”
In an effort to encourage investment in renewable energy sources, New Hampshire in 2007 enacted the Renewable Portfolio Standard law. Known as RPS, it requires electric utilities like Public Service of New Hampshire to purchase a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources, like wind or solar, through a system of certificates that subsidize those facilities.
“What we’re trying to do with this is have more renewable energy in the market so we have cleaner air, less pollution and reduce climate change,” said Catherine Corkery, chapter director and field organizer for the New Hampshire Sierra Club.
The bill that passed the Senate on a voice vote March 28 makes a number of changes to the RPS law that supporters said are necessary to keep the program running smoothly.
It also would add “municipal waste combustion” to the list of eligible sources of renewable energy, specifically for pre-2006 trash incinerators with a maximum capacity of 6 megawatts.
“It is a renewable energy resource,” Bradley said. “I mean, you wouldn’t normally think of it as renewable energy, but it is renewable.”
According to the Energy Recovery Council, the waste-to-energy industry’s trade group, 31 states have laws defining trash incineration as a renewable source of energy.
Wheelabrator, a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management, operates the two municipal solid waste incinerators in New Hampshire, a large one in Penacook and a smaller one in Claremont.
But under the Senate’s bill, only the Claremont facility, which began operating in 1987, would be eligible for the RPS program. The Penacook plant, with a maximum output of 14 megawatts, is too large.
The trash incinerator provision was proposed by Sen. David Pierce, an Etna Democrat, who said he suggested it at Wheelabrator’s request.
“They’re in Claremont, so it was a constituent request,” he said.
Pierce said being eligible for the RPS program would have helped the plant’s bottom line. On balance, he said, the incinerator has been an economic plus for Claremont, despite long-standing opposition from some residents on environmental and other grounds.
“We support this measure and other state and federal bills that recognize waste-to-energy as a renewable energy source,” wrote Michelle Firmbach Nadeau, a Wheelabrator spokeswoman, in an email.
But the Sierra Club and others opposed the idea, saying it would discourage recycling efforts by creating an economic incentive to produce trash.
“The proposal makes a mockery of the truly renewable resources,” Corkery wrote in an April letter to the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee.
In the end, the House panel decided to eliminate the trash incinerator provision from the RPS bill.
“They call it ‘solid waste’ but, I mean, it’s garbage, is what it is,” Levasseur said. “They require that when it comes to them, certain things be removed, but they don’t do a whole lot of checking on their end of what’s being burned.”
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)