Neighborhood Sun C.E.O. and Founder, Gary Skulnik, Writes About His Personal History With Clean Energy Policy in Baltimore, Maryland
Maryland has a trash problem, and for me, it’s a very personal one. Our community’s reliance on waste incineration (a.k.a. burning trash to produce energy) is polluting the very air we breathe, especially in places like Baltimore. To add insult to injury, Baltimore considers this pollutive and non-renewable resource as a Tier 1 clean energy source, offering it the same financial rewards as truly renewable sources like wind and solar. We need to move as quickly as we can to solar power and other renewable, zero-emission energy sources so we can end our reliance on fossil fuels and shut down these harmful incineration plants, which are profiting at the expense of our community’s health.
Burning garbage to produce electricity is not “clean,” nor is it truly renewable. Yet the companies that run these polluting, dioxin-spewing power plants have managed to get Maryland lawmakers to include them in the law that is meant to promote clean, renewable sources of energy like wind or solar. Shutting down these plants is personal to me. If the legislature had stuck with the original wording of the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) bill that I got passed in 2004, trash incineration would no longer be included in the “clean” energy mix.
It was more than twenty years ago, and the clean energy landscape in Maryland was very different when I led the charge to get the state to adopt its first RPS. It was a modest bill, only requiring 7.5% of the state’s electricity to come from renewables, but it took three long years of blood, sweat, and tears to get it passed.
There was so much opposition to the bill that the top aide to the House Speaker once held a phone book up in his office and asked if there was anyone in there that did not oppose the bill. The most significant opposition came from the utilities. Once we got them on board, however, the garbage-burning crowd became our next major obstacle. The chief lobbyist for the garbage group was married to a powerful Senator who was part of the Senate leadership. I’m sure they never compared notes at home, but the message we got was clear – we need to work with the garbage burners or the bill was dead.
We had to figure out a way to give the garbage burners something without totally destroying the intent of the bill. The compromise I came up with was not perfect, but it worked. We allowed garbage incineration in tier 2 of the RPS, which would have been phased out gradually down to zero by 2018 or so. Tier 1 was wind and solar and other energy sources, while tier 2 was large hydro and garbage. I was not happy to have garbage in the bill at all, but at least it would be phased out and the financial incentives for tier 2 were much less than for tier 1. The compromise bill passed, and ideally, that would be where the story ends.
Unfortunately, the industry lobbyists and their Senate supporters (ie. spouse) did not stop working. I had moved on to found Clean Currents and was no longer in Annapolis in 2011 when they got garbage incineration moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1, where it remains to this day. This is wrong on so many levels.
Burning trash to make energy in Maryland causes air pollution here in Baltimore and other parts of the state where we have these incinerators. In Baltimore, the single largest stationary source of air pollution is the Wheelabrator trash incinerator visible from I-95. The air pollution it causes sickens and perhaps cuts short the lives of people in our communities.
The fact that we ratepayers are partly subsidizing plants that have existed for many years and that don’t need any additional incentives is sickening. Instead of paying these plants to operate, we should be shutting them down.
In order to do that, we need to build more solar and other clean energy sources to replace the power they create. The more community solar we build in the Baltimore area, the less need to burn garbage for electricity.
Let’s keep powering forward!
Gary Skulnik, Founder & C.E.O.