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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Last-Minute Changes Made to the State’s Clean Energy Goals

Environmentalists say new technologies and flat-lined goals weaken renewable energy standards

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Were the state’s renewable energy goals weakened during the final days of the legislative session?

The answer depends on how you view a new bill, signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle last week, which expands the definition of “renewable energy source” without increasing the amount of renewable energy that must be used by the state’s utilities.

“We went backwards, not forwards,” said state Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison), a champion of clean energy. “If you don’t increase the percentage of renewable energy that must be used, and you include the new technologies, you decrease the amount of wind and solar to be used.”

A Last-Minute Amendment without Public Debate

The bill had been proposed last year with little fanfare. A public hearing was held last September to add some new technologies to the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS)—the state’s definition of what is a renewable energy source.

That designation is very important to a “clean energy” company, because it allows the company to sell its electricity to a utility and help that utility reach the 10% goal. Without that designation, the electricity isn’t as desirable to utilities that need to decrease their reliance on fossil fuels such as coal.

Last fall, the new technologies didn’t seem to raise too many alarms—for example, it included solar light pipes manufactured by Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc.

Besides, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), which would have raised the state’s renewable energy goals from 10% to 25% by 2025, was attracting far more attention than this rather innocuous bill.

But just hours before the vote on April 15, a controversial amendment was added to the bill by Sen. Majority Leader Russ Decker, Milwaukee Sen. Jeff Plale and Green Bay Sen. David Hansen to include even more technologies. Among them is “synthetic gas created by the plasma gasification of waste,” a cutting-edge technology that takes just about any kind of waste, heats it so intensely it turns into a gas, then uses that gas to create electricity that can be sold to utilities and put on the power grid.

Without public debate, the state Senate approved the amended bill 25-8 and the Assembly followed suit a week later on a voice vote with no record of who voted “aye” or “nay.”

Doyle signed it last week without revision, although he did note that it was “a difficult one to sign” since CEJA—with its higher standards—died in the state Legislature.

Supporters hailed the bill as a win for Wisconsin’s clean energy future.

“I want to thank Governor Doyle for recognizing that this legislation is a positive step toward Wisconsin’s growing clean energy economy,” Plale said in a press release. (Plale’s office did not return a call seeking comment for this article.)

But environmentalists say that the combination of the flat 10% renewable energy goal, expanded renewable energy standard and the inclusion of the waste-to-energy technology weakens Wisconsin’s clean energy portfolio.

“I think the first thing we need to do is to come back next session and repeal the bill,” said Jennifer Giegerich, capitol liaison for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

Gasification Plant Planned for Milwaukee

This would all seem to be an abstract argument among clean energy experts at the end of the legislative session, a time of Monday-morning quarterbacking, but the argument is far from abstract since a waste-to-energy gasification plant is being planned for the north side of Milwaukee. Critics are concerned that it’s not as “green” as its supporters promise.

Dubbed “Project Apollo,” the $250 million project is being planned by a Milwaukee-based corporation, Alliance Federated Energy (AFE). No other commercial gasification plant is up and running in the United States, although a small gasification plant in Japan has operated for years, and a test plant in Pennsylvania is run by Alter NRG, which owns the Westinghouse Plasma technology that AFE plans to use. Others have been proposed but haven’t gone online yet.

According to Ken Niemann, executive vice president of development and operations for AFE, the plant would produce 40 megawatts of baseload electricity, an estimated 25 megawatts of which could be sold to utilities. The remaining 15 megawatts would be used to run the plant. Niemann estimated that it would take about 18 months to go through the permitting process prior to construction. The company is currently discussing power-purchase agreements with utilities. If all goes according to schedule, the plant would be ready for business in the final months of 2013.

Rep. Black was concerned that the ambiguous language in the bill would allow all of the energy produced by the plant to be counted as green energy, not just the amount that is sold to the utilities.

“The bill isn’t explicit about that, but it appears to do that,” Black said. “If it does do that then it would further weaken the RPS.”

AFE’s Niemann said he wasn’t even sure about this point.

“It really depends on how [the Public Service Commission] interprets the regulations,” Niemann said. “I would guess that they’ll look at the net amount.”

Project Apollo would consume about 1,200 tons of garbage each day, Niemann said. That dwarfs the Japanese gasification plant, which consumes about 200 tons of garbage a day.

About 70% of Project Apollo’s fuel would be municipal waste from the city that would otherwise go to a landfill, while the rest would be industrial waste. Niemann said AFE hasn’t decided if it would handle medical or hazardous waste, since that would require more stringent materials handling and an extra set of permits.

“At this point we’re not sure what we’re going to do with that material,” Niemann said. “We’d like to take it but I don’t have a definitive answer yet.”

Concern About Emissions

Although the technology is pretty cutting edge, the synthesis gas—or “syngas”—created during the gasification process contains many toxins that must be removed. Niemann said that these materials—studies show that particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury and furans are among them—are consistent with what turns up in the waste process industry all over the world.

Niemann said some elements would be recycled and sold where appropriate, emitted from its stack, or sent to a certified landfill that is permitted to accept those materials. He said that gasifying waste was preferable to sending it to a landfill, where it can create methane, a greenhouse gas.

But first the plant must be granted permits by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“We will submit to the DNR an air permit application that will tell them what the process is, how it works, what will come out of the stack,” Niemann said. “We’re very sensitive to what comes out of the stack and we’ll work with the DNR and work within the limits of the permit [if Project Apollo is granted one]. We will get our emissions as low as we can.”

Spencer Black, however, isn’t convinced that the technology is truly “green.”

“My concern about burning garbage is that it can lead to the emission of toxins, depending on the process,” Black said. “We’ll have to wait to see what’s in the permit and see how the plant is run.”

Giegerich of WLCV said that allowing this technology to be included in the definition of “renewable energy”—with the assumption that it’s “green”—was premature.

“At the very least we should have the answers to [its emissions] before they build one,” Giegerich said. “But to go ahead and give them credit as clean energy before we know that?”