There’s free federal cash for renewables, and so people are getting creative about sneaking their pet product into the category of “renewable energy.” Wind, solar, and stuff that grows are all obviously renewable, since you can get more in a short period of time.
But what about burning garbage? Or animal manure? Old tires? Captured methane from a cattle-feeding operation? Or using the recaptured heat from a power plant?
We all have an idea of what “renewable” means, but the law is made by politics, so what gets included in that definition is up to our honorable legislators.
Renewable isn’t the same as eco-friendly. We learned that with biofuels. Should we reward coal mines with a tax credit when they capture the methane they emit and supply it as energy? On one hand, it’s better to burn it and emit CO2 than to just let it escape. On the other hand, it makes coal-mining yet more central to our energy supply, and more profitable too. Using waste for energy is a kind of conservation, but that’s often a very dirty way to run the lights. Burning tires rather than dumping them? That’s two bad choices, environmentally. Remember that some people have done well making old tires into super-efficient walls of houses.
Why is this happening?
- states have RES’s (renewable energy portfolio standards) that gradually increase the minimum percentage of total electricity supply that comes from “renewables”.
- There are tons of tax breaks for renewables — tax credits for wind and solar but other credits for renewables production.
So it’s all about getting the government to draw the “renewable” line around your energy source. House republicans tried to put nuclear power into the renewables basket when Waxman Markey was in committee. (Nuclear waste is obviously a problem, but I’d prefer that to burning tires and trash.)
But burning pretty much anything, whether it’s trash and crop waste or coal and oil, puts out some kind of emissions, and if we burn the amount we need to power our society, pretty much any burned fuel is likely to be too carbon-intensive to be considered part of the climate-change solution. Also, consider that when you burn all sorts of stuff, you get all sorts of pollution — sulfur oxides, particulate matter, all sorts of carcinogens. With some of these toss-it-in-the-fire solutions, we don’t know the dangers or the eventual costs.
The problem with building an infrastructure around trash and tires is that we create a requirement for trash and tires. This undercuts conservation efforts that would ideally result in less trash being produced, and fewer tires heading to landfills. What happens to Reduce Reuse Recycle when trash keeps the air conditioner running?
Ohio’s renewable energy standard is set at 25×25 (25% renewable by 2025), and specifically requires that half of that 25% come from “core” renewable sources (wind and solar, I assume?) but allows the other half to come from chemically treated coal or other future-tech clean coal sources.
California is upping its standard to 33×20, which is ambitious enough that it may require some fudging of the definition to meet the standard.