Renewable groups contest trash talk
Wind and solar advocates are resisting the market competition posed by plants that burn garbage for electricity.
Under a state law change approved this year, the garbage technology, called plasma gasification, is in the same category as wind and solar as avenues for utilities to meet state renewable energy mandates.
Charlene Lemoine, waste issues representative for the Waukesha Environmental Action League, said she opposes the new technology because utilities can buy power straight from the garbage-burning plants rather than from wind or solar sources. Those plants, she said, need power to generate power and produce emissions.
“We would like to see the state focusing on clean renewable energies,” she said, “particularly focusing on wind and solar.”
Alliance Federated Energy LLC, Milwaukee, plans to build a $235 million plant called Project Apollo in Milwaukee that would burn municipal trash to generate about 30 megawatts of electricity.
Wisconsin utilities generate about 6 percent of their power from renewable sources, said Christopher Maloney, Alliance chairman and CEO. But the state is mandating utilities hit 10 percent by 2015, so there’s a 4 percent window that companies such as Alliance are competing to fill, he said.
Maloney said much of the opposition to plasma plants is market-driven.
“A lot of it is backed by the wind interests,” he said. “Given that there is now a 10 percent cap, there is a concern that we will be competing, and we will.”
Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a consortium of renewable energy companies, said wind energy producers in his association have raised concerns about competition. He said they also question whether the plasma plants can match the environmental benefits of wind and solar.
“Plasma gasification is just sort of a tricked-out technology for dealing with garbage,” Vickerman said. “And, as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t made a case as to why this should be a preferred energy resource.”
Maloney said the plasma plants, beyond keeping garbage out of landfills, let utilities diversify their renewable energy sources. Unlike wind farms, which cannot produce a steady stream of electricity, the plasma plants can run every day all day, he said.
“Now it’s time to get busy building these plants,” Maloney said, “and I think Wisconsin has, given the volume of waste in the state, the ability to build three or four of these.”
State Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, said competition between among types of renewable energy will lead to better prices for Wisconsin ratepayers. Plale sponsored the state bill that let plasma technology count toward meeting renewable energy mandates.
“I don’t see the downside to that,” Plale said of burning garbage to produce power. “I think that if you put blinders on and say, ‘Wind and sun are the only renewable energy sources,’ you are kind of missing the boat.”
Lemoine said the plasma plants are environmentally inferior to wind and solar and hamper efforts to increase garbage recycling and composting.
“The loss,” she said, “is that there is much more that can be done.”