Burning tires, coal mining by-products and trash can be called many things. But what they shouldn’t be called, environmentalists say, is renewable energy because they often emit harmful toxins.
However, a bill by state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, seeks that designation for the burning of a variety of such waste products for energy production.
Under Nesbitt’s House Bill 5205, things like old tires, animal wastes, sewer sludge; and crop, wood and paper wastes would all qualify as renewable energy sources when burned by certain processes.
The battle is clouding the air in the Capitol over just what really is renewable energy; and renewing the fight over what is clean vs. dirty energy — and who stands to profit or potentially be harmed.
The bill passed on the state House floor by a 63-46 vote Thursday and is awaiting action in the Senate — which could come quickly in the lame-duck session.
“It’s better to use trash for something that’s useful, such as energy production that’s cleaner than some current coal-fired plants; and divert that trash from the landfills and use it for something productive,” said Nesbitt, chairman of the House Energy and Technology Committee.
The bill requires the burning of the products using a high-heat, no-oxygen process called pyrolysis, which produces 70% less carbon dioxide emissions than the state’s coal-fired electricity generating facilities, he added.
The biggest problem for environmentalists, however, is the renewable energy designation.
“Part of it is coal refuse, the by-products of burning coal,” said James Clift, policy director for the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council. “Also included would be scrap tires and railroad ties. Some of these are hazardous wastes, and therefore emit air toxics when they are burned. This is as far as we can imagine from what people think of as renewable energy.”
And it’s not just a matter of semantics, Clift said.
If the bill is passed, it could factor into the state’s renewable portfolio standards — requirements that a certain percentage of energy be produced from renewable sources. The standards often come with government subsidies, or allow renewable energy creators to market their energy at a profit to those utilities needing to meet government standards.
Michigan currently requires energy providers to derive 10% of their supplies from renewable sources by next year. And policymakers are currently considering whether and how to extend the renewable portfolio standard.
“That’s the problem with our energy markets; we don’t differentiate very well between clean energy and dirty energy, so (renewable portfolio standards) have been used to provide some incentive for clean energy,” Clift said. “This is setting everything on its head by also having dirty energy subsidized.”
An amendment to Nesbitt’s bill specifically excluded petroleum coke as a renewable energy source.
The controversial oil refining by-product stirred controversy in Detroit last year when four-story piles of pet coke were improperly stored along the Detroit River, causing soot problems for nearby residents and swirling black clouds over the river before city officials required their removal.
A later attempt by a local company to store pet coke at another location along the river, in River Rouge, was rejected by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Michigan Rep. Bill LaVoy, D-Monroe, explained his opposition to Nesbitt’s bill following the House vote to pass it.
“I have a problem with polluting the definition of renewable energy,” he said. “Waste-to-energy should be defined as an alternative energy source or an advanced energy source.”
Nesbitt cited a 2011 Columbia University study that found that if all the non-recycled plastics currently put in landfills were separated and converted by pyrolysis into a fuel oil, they would produce an estimated 87 million barrels of oil per year — enough to power 6 million cars for a year.
Nesbitt also dismissed environmental critics of his bill.
“They want to pick winners and losers in the clean energy field,” he said. “It’s a commonsense piece of legislation instead of buying into the scaremongering of the far-left environmental groups.”
The Michigan Chapter of the nonprofit Sierra Club is among many environmental organizations opposed to the bill.
“HB 5205 supports technologies that produce very expensive, extremely dirty power, while undermining the growing trend in truly clean, affordable, renewable energy produced by and for Michiganders today,” said chapter director Anne Woiwode.
The bill was referred Tuesday to the state Senate’s Energy and Technology Committee.