Electricity legislation ….stop subsidizing dirty “renewables.”

With the election of a new DFL governor and the DFL takeover of the House, possibilities open for useful policy changes. No guarantees, but at least possibilities.

The chief idea floating around seems to be to increase the “renewable” quota for electricity generation. The problem with this is that “renewable” as defined in Minnesota includes not only wind and solar but the dirtiest sources we have, such as poultry poop power, garbage incineration power, wood burner power (“biomass”), and landfill gas power. It would be foolish to increase the “renewable” power quotas (sometimes called a “Renewable Portfolio Standard”) without cleaning up (literally!) the definition so additional incentives aren’t created for dirty power sources.

(“Renewables” quotas are not the only way to encourage cleaner power and arguably not the best.  But that’s a discussion for another time.)

The political problem with this, of course, is that the owners/operators of the dirty power projects can do a lot of complaining, and have more clout than those of us concerned about health and air quality.

On Feb 4th a House committee hearing was held on a bill that would increase the “renewables” quota but also remove garbage incineration power from the definition.  I sent in some testimony on this point to the committee members but don’t know if any of them read it.  I include it below:

Testimony to the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division

February 4, 2019

Alan Muller

I’m here to support HF700, and particularly to support the strikeout at lines 1.20 to 1.22 that removes garbage burning as an “eligible energy technology.”

This provision is important to my community of Red Wing, to Neighbors Against the Burner, and to the state generally.

But first: I came to Minnesota in 2007, the year the report of the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group was issued. This appeared to provide a sound basis for progress in reducing climate-changing emissions. For whatever reasons this report wasn’t followed up or acted on. Instead, for the last 11 years, critical years, the State has done little, falling behind other states, as previous witnesses have noted. The increase in wind and solar capacity has been more the result of market forces than public policies.

HF 700 can help us resume progress, and should advance, but is far from all that is needed. Let me briefly mention some other issues needing attention:

Utility regulation. Minnesota needs a more effective Public Utilities Commission, one that is not lead around by the nose by those it’s supposed to be regulating. I hope that the recent controversy regarding a pipeline permit has opened many eyes.

Resource Planning. Minnesota has this, in theory, for regulated utilities (not munis or coops). But since we don’t require symmetrical treatment of supply-side and demand-side resources, nor realistic valuation of externalities, we don’t get much out of it. Done right, many of the results mentioned earlier by Mr. O’Connell would tend to shake out as least cost in utility IRPs, and this would make implementation of sound policies much easier.

Respect for Communities. As wind and solar scale up, land use conflicts escalate in host communities. These are commonly rural communities who already have various challenges and concerns. The wind and solar industries will do better in the long run, and community consent will more easily be obtained, with adequate regulation of such issues as setback requirements and noise standards. Exemption of wind and solar projects from environmental review is poor public policy.

Nuclear Electricity. In the last session Xcel rolled out a demand for huge ratepayer subsidies for its three reactors. Doubtless this unwise scheme will be back. The Minnesota’s Smarter Grid report discussed by O’Connell notes that “the [nuclear] relicense pathway reduces the overall cumulative energy cost savings by $2 .4 billion by 2050” and “The lower installed capacity [of wind, solar, and storage] reduces the total full-time jobs created by 2050.” (page 60.) The three reactors are a burden on Minnesota.

I’m from Red Wing, in Goodhue County. In 2007 Red Wing was the home of three garbage burner smokestacks, two nuclear reactors, and a nuclear waste cask parking lot. Eleven years later we are down to two garbage burner smokestacks, but constant efforts are made, supported by Xcel Energy and the MPCA, to increase the amounts of garbage burned in Red Wing, increasing the air pollution burden on community health. The emissions are already on the order of 1.5 million pounds per year NOT counting the carbon dioxide climate emissions. The MPCA has gone so far as to withhold “Score” funds, intended to increase recycling, to force Goodhue County to require all county garbage to end up in Xcel’s 1940s garbage burners. At the same time, very little has been done in the last 11 years to increase recycling in Red Wing or Goodhue County, and the MPCA has shown no interest in making that happen. More wrongheaded policies are not easy to imagine.

Looking at the statewide picture, in the mid 80s Minnesota had reached a waste diversion rate in the 40 percent range and could reasonably have claimed to be a leader. Then, progress came to a halt. I believe this is because, somehow, the incineration industry set its hooks into Minnesota, and particularly into certain parts of the MPCA. Needed efforts to increase source reduction and recycling have instead largely gone into promoting incineration, and promoting a false message that our waste management alternatives are limited to dumping or burning. This is a perversion of the legislated waste management hierarchy, which puts incineration second from the bottom, and reduction/recycling at the top.

Rep. Mahoney mentioned that he’d had two people in his office claiming that HF700 would “kill their industry.” Probably you have all had such visits.

Minnesota needs garbage burners like it needs coal burners. They have had a long run and their time is past. Time to phase them out.

Thank you for listening.

Below I’ve attached some comments made to the Senate Environment and Energy Committee (March 10, 2015).

Alan Muller

Energy and Environmental Consulting.

Neighbors Against the Burner.

1110 West Avenue

Red Wing, MN, 55066



Mr Chair and Senators:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this bill.  In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with individuals and organizations in Minnesota who have wanted to improve waste management practices and protect themselves from the health hazards of undesirable activities such as incineration.  So that is my point of view on this bill–will it be helpful to residents and communities.

S. F. 1132 seems derived somewhat from a recent report from the Legislative Auditor.  Regrettably, the Legislative Auditor does not seem to have included a citizens’ or public interest perspective in the report.  For example, for several years people in Minneapolis fought a drawn-out battle to prevent expanded garbage burning at the HERC incinerator in downtown Minneapolis.  To do this, they had to fight Hennepin County, owner of the incinerator, Covanta, operator of the incinerator, the Pollution Control Agency, relentless promoter of more burning, and other powerful interests.  The success of this effort had a lot to do with the present progress in Minneapolis towards raising its very low recycling rate, collecting organics for composting, and so on.  No one would have learned anything about this from reading the report of the Legislative Auditor.  And, frankly, this citizen/public interest perspective also seems lacking in S.F. 1132.

At one time it could have been said that Minnesota was a leader in recycling, with a statewide rate approaching 40 percent.  But recycling rates stagnated years ago, as has been noted by the MPCA and others.  It makes sense to consider why this is and how it might be corrected.  I see two main causes:

The unfortunate diversion of waste tax revenues into the general fund deprived counties of revenues needed to continue developing recycling programs.  The provisions of S.F. 1132 intended to restore waste program funding are very welcome.

The other key cause, which you might be less anxious to hear about, is the extraordinarily misguided influence of the MPCA.  To understand why this matters so much, consider that the PCA has it’s finger in the waste management pie at many levels.

The MPCA has a policy making role.  For example, the agency is authorized to establish an enforceable Metro Solid Waste Plan without the usual Minnesota rulemaking requirements;
The MPCA is a grantmaker, a funder of waste management facilities throughout the state.  I believe it inherited this role when the Office of Environmental Assistance was merged into the PCA;
The MPCA carries out environmental review (pursuant to the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act) of waste management projects; and
The MPCA is responsible for the permitting of waste facilities such as dumps and incinerators, and for the enforcement of those permits.
There are many potential conflicts of interest in these multiple roles.  So. if the PCA is off the rails, inevitably waste management throughout Minnesota will be off the rails.  I am here today to tell you, in the unlikely event you don’t already know it, that the PCA is off the rails on garbage.  The agency has relentlessly framed waste management issues in terms of dumping vs burning, relentlessly promoting its institutional preference for burning (incineration).  Recycling has been grossly neglected.

Here is an example from Goodhue County, where I live:  The agency has withheld “SCORE” funds, intended to fund recycling activities, from the County in order to force Goodhue County to enact an ordinance forcing all the garbage generated in the county to go to an incinerator in Red Wing–a converted coal plant from the 1940s with a permit expired since 2009.  I live in Red Wing and don’t care to breathe the additional pollutants caused by burning more garbage.  And I don’t think the residents of Goodhue County want to bear the additional costs of this scheme without any resulting benefits.  A couple of months ago I attended a meeting of the Goodhue County board.  Two of the Commissioners expressed, in loud voices, the opinions that they were experiencing “blackmail” and “extortion” from the MPCA.  They were correct.  One pointed out that the MPCA was withholding funds used to operate recycling programs.  Is this how to increase recycling?

Minnesota law contains a “waste hierarchy.”  The actual word used in the statute is “preference:”

The following waste management practices are in order of preference:
(1) waste reduction and reuse;
(2) waste recycling;
(3) composting of source-separated compostable materials, including but not limited to, yard waste and foodwaste ;
(4) resource recovery through mixed municipal solid waste composting or incineration;
(5) land disposal which produces no measurable methane gas or which involves the retrieval of methane gas as a fuel for the production of energy to be used on site or for sale; and
(6) land disposal which produces measurable methane and which does not involve the retrieval of methane gas as a fuel for the production of energy to be used on site or for sale.
Whether you call it a hierarchy or a preference, it is clear that at the TOP are reduction and reuse, recycling, and composting.  At the BOTTOM are dumping and burning.  Repeatedly over the past few years I have heard MPCA officials claim they are required by the “hierarchy” to promote incineration.  But this is contrary to the plain wording of the statute.

So I recommend to you that you add some simple wording like this to SF 1132:

“The Pollution Control Agency and other state and local entities dealing with waste shall, consistent with Section 115A.02(b), shall focus their waste management efforts on the top three elements of the waste management preferences.”

I could say a great deal more but will stop here.  Adding this language to S.F. 1132 could do a lot of good.  Please seriously consider it.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.  I will be happy to try to answer any questions.

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