Op-Ed: Don't contaminate concept of clean energy

Published 12:22 a.m., Sunday, July 15, 2012
Albany Times Union, Albany, NY
The American public has a pretty clear idea of the difference between clean energy and dirty energy. So why are our elected leaders so confused on the topic?
As a recent survey conducted for the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute shows, the large majority of Americans agree "clean energy" should emit little or no pollution and greenhouse gases, and should protect our environment and health. Think wind, solar, geothermal and tidal.
Yet when our federal government and energy lobbyists make policy, the word "clean" represents something very different. The "Clean Energy Standard" legislation recently proposed in the Senate would incentivize industrial biomass, natural gas (fracking), and that king of oxymorons, "clean coal".
The words clean and renewable have been transmogrified here in New York, too, as dirty fuels are increasingly subsidized under the state's ratepayer-funded Renewable Portfolio Standard. Only two years ago, the coal-and-tire-burning Niagara Generation plant just upstream from Niagara Falls applied to the New York State Public Service Commission for ratepayer subsidies to burn supposedly "clean" construction and demolition debris that is separated from contaminated materials. Although the subsidies were granted, thus opening the door to the construction of other plants that will burn contaminated fuels, such as Taylor Biomass in Orange County, NiGen has remained so uneconomic the facility has hardly operated over the last two years.
Now, NiGen is once again before the PSC, asking for subsidies to be extended to a new class of dirty fuel, "adulterated" construction and demolition wood that contains glues and resins. In fact, the facility is already permitted to burn this material — they just don't get subsidies for it. If they did, the company claims, they could be profitable.
NiGen is the old model of a fossil fuel plant trying to cash in on renewable energy subsidies. The new model is exemplified by Taylor Biomass, a 20 MW plant proposed in the Orange County town of Montgomery that will burn garbage and construction and demolition debris. Like the Niagara Generation plant, the facility was struggling to secure a fuel supply, but has recently locked in a 20-year contract to take Newburgh's garbage.
Also like NiGen, the Taylor facility will vent its emissions into communities that already exceed the EPA's health standards for particulate pollution and ground-level ozone, pollutants that are linked to asthma, heart attacks, and cancer. And like NiGen, the Taylor facility will also emit heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and chromium as well as dioxin, one of the deadliest substances known to man.
The pattern is clear. When government loosens the definition of clean or renewable energy to include dirty fuels, industry's response is to seek even further easing of the regulations — and to build even more power plants burning even more contaminated material.
There is another path. To respond to this industry-influenced, burn-whatever-you-can strategy, 36 state, regional and national environmental groups have initiated the American Clean Energy Agenda. Released in late June, the Agenda rejects the business-as-usual "clean energy standard" that includes coal, nuclear, oil, gas, waste and biomass incineration, and calls for phasing out these technologies in favor of efficient use of renewable, non-polluting technologies.
The difference between clean and dirty energy is obvious to most Americans, who understand that combustion is never clean and certainly not climate-friendly. We all pay for these phony "clean" and "renewable" energy choices — in publically funded subsidies, but also in toxic air pollution, climate warming, and damage to the environment. It's time to reclaim the concept of clean energy, lest it be contaminated forever.
See our letter to the New York Public Service Commission on Niagara Generation here.