Renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) are powerful state-level climate policy tools that set minimum renewable energy targets. They have been adopted by 29 states, in the United States (U.S.) as well as Washington, D.C., and have fueled much of the growth in the U.S. renewable energy sector. However, because these policy tools are state-driven, the technologies and fuel types included in each state’s RPS vary. In this article, I discuss the inclusion of municipal solid waste in Maryland’s RPS, and a social movement for environmental justice that has emerged around this decision. Given the prominence of RPSs in both fueling renewable energy adoption in the U.S., as well as in encouraging particular technologies, it is increasingly important to interrogate the types of technologies and fuel sources that climate policies like RPSs incentivize, and how they are received by the communities for which they are proposed. Thus, this article’s objective is to inspire critical thought about the classification schemes that govern renewable energy production.

INTRODUCTION

In 2016, then 20-year-old Destiny Watford captured the hearts of environmental activists worldwide when she was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize—one of the most coveted accolades for grassroots environmental organizers [1]. Yet Watford earned this prestigious recognition for a grassroots environmental justice campaign she led to shut down a proposed renewable power facility—a waste incinerator. Indeed, Maryland, Watford’s home state, classifies waste incinerators as renewable energy sources. As leaders grapple with various approaches to confronting the dire circumstances presented by climate change, it is increasingly important to examine how interventions proposed in the name of climate change mitigation are received by the communities in which they are to be implemented. At the same time, it is crucial to develop more comprehensive understandings of the contested scientific arguments that justify those interventions.

This case study examines the question of classifying municipal solid waste (MSW) as a renewable energy source within the context of a Maryland renewable energy policy called a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). First, this article introduces RPSs and their role in U.S. renewable energy generation. Then, it discusses the contested inclusion of MSW incineration in these policies and the scientific and political controversies surrounding waste incineration. Finally, it discusses the particularities of Maryland’s RPS, and the motivations behind and outcomes of a social movement that has mobilized against Maryland’s inclusion of waste incineration in its RPS.

CASE EXAMINATION

Given floundering federal leadership on climate change, U.S. states have taken up the vanguard on developing greenhouse gas reduction legislation and other climate change mitigation policies [25]. In particular, RPSs have emerged as powerful climate policy tools that require a state’s energy providers to procure a minimum amount of their retail electricity sales through renewable sources. The concept of RPSs as a policy tool originated in California, though they were first adopted by Iowa (1983), Minnesota (1994), and Arizona (1996) [6]. RPSs are now in place in 29 states as well as the District of Columbia. They account for 50% of the growth in U.S. renewable electricity generation since 2000, and U.S. renewable energy supply is predicted to grow by another 50% in the next 14 years to meet RPS current targets [7]. Furthermore, some states with RPS policies already in place are considering new, ambitious renewable energy targets, with states like Hawaii and Maine passing RPS legislation that commits to 100% renewable electricity in the next 30 years [8, 9]. Because RPSs are enacted by states rather than by the federal government, states may tailor definitions of renewability, RPS-qualifying technologies, and RPS incentive structures to their economic goals (e.g., to support specific firms, sectors, industries, or communities). This tailoring not only lends flexibility to state policies but also opens the process to competing constituencies’ interests and knowledge claims around what technologies qualify as renewable. RPS policies, and the definitions of renewability they include, therefore vary widely across the U.S. According to data drawn from the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE), there are over 30 different types of technologies variously included in the 29 state RPS policies.

One energy source whose classification as a type of renewable fuel is particularly contested is MSW—i.e., garbage. In the United States, more than half (16) of the states with RPSs frame MSW as a renewable energy source in their RPSs [10] (Figure 1). The most common process for harnessing the caloric energy in MSW is incineration, also sometimes called waste-to-energy. In fact, waste industry market analysts have reported that RPSs have become the single largest drivers of the U.S. incineration industry [11]. In the incineration process, garbage is burned, heating water that gets converted to steam. The steam drives a turbine, which spins a generator to produce electricity. The steam can alternatively be sold as processing steam for industry or to district heating systems in cities. The residual ash falls to the bottom and is then trucked away, while the gases released from the incineration process go through a series of filtration systems and eventually get released into the air (Table 1).

FIGURE 1.

Map of U.S. states that include MSW in their RPS. Source: DSIRE [13–28]. Map by Sean Pries.

FIGURE 1.

Map of U.S. states that include MSW in their RPS. Source: DSIRE [13–28]. Map by Sean Pries.

TABLE 1.

Emissions from large and small MSW combustion facilities (2005)

PollutantsEmissions value
Mercury 2.3 (tons/year) 
Cadmium 0.4 (tons/year) 
Lead 5.5 (tons/year) 
Particulate matter 780 (tons/year) 
Hydrogen chloride 3,200 (tons/year) 
Sulfur dioxide 4,600 (tons/year) 
Nitrogen oxides 49,500 (tons/year) 
Dioxins and furans 15 (toxic equivalency grams/year) 
Carbon dioxide 1,016 (pounds/megawatt hour) 
PollutantsEmissions value
Mercury 2.3 (tons/year) 
Cadmium 0.4 (tons/year) 
Lead 5.5 (tons/year) 
Particulate matter 780 (tons/year) 
Hydrogen chloride 3,200 (tons/year) 
Sulfur dioxide 4,600 (tons/year) 
Nitrogen oxides 49,500 (tons/year) 
Dioxins and furans 15 (toxic equivalency grams/year) 
Carbon dioxide 1,016 (pounds/megawatt hour) 

Source: US EPA [12].

The argument supporting waste’s classification as a renewable energy source rests largely on the assumption that the waste stream contains biomass, e.g., food scraps, cardboard, paper, cotton clothing, etc [29]. Advocates also argue that CO2 emissions from waste incineration contribute less to global warming than landfilling’s methane emissions [30]. Furthermore, proponents have cited the increasing unavailability of appropriate landfilling space and the lack of capacity in existing landfills as arguments in support of waste incineration [31]. Critics of waste’s classification as a renewable energy source, however, contend that incineration: (1) undermines more climate-friendly alternatives like recycling and composting [32], (2) “place[s] a huge financial burden on local taxpayers” [31], and (3) contributes to health risks in communities that are already most vulnerable to climate change [33]. Studies have indeed found that waste incineration facilities can adversely affect air quality through their release of toxic metals and carcinogens [3436]. In the European Union, where waste is classified as a renewable energy source, environmental activists also decry the fact that this classification has led to the proliferation of waste incinerators throughout the region [37].

Indeed, waste incinerators, among other forms of waste management technologies, have long been at the center of struggles against institutionalized environmental racism and other forms of discrimination [38, 39]. While this practice has been well-documented since the early 20th century [38, 40], national outcry over discriminatory incinerator siting practices emerged particularly strongly in the mid-1980s, when an infamous report published by Cerrell Associates for the California Waste Management Board (commonly known as the Cerrell Report), urged the state to site incinerators in locations where communities were least likely to resist [31, 41]. The report specifically targeted lower-income communities with lower educational attainment, and ostensibly influenced the City of Los Angeles to propose citing an incinerator in a “mostly African American and Latino South Central Los Angeles neighborhood” [42].

In Maryland, recent debates about whether and how to include MSW in the state’s RPS have been particularly contested. Maryland’s RPS was originally enacted in 2004 [43, 44] and has subsequently been revised at several junctures. A revision with a significant impact on the waste incineration industry, in particular, was passed in 2011 when Maryland’s former governor Martin O’Malley elevated MSW from a Tier 2 to a Tier 1 renewable energy source [45, 46]. Maryland and several northeast states, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, incorporate tier or class systems of renewable energy sources that aim to prioritize certain types of renewable energy generation. The specific priorities and incentive structures vary from state to state. In Maryland, the distinction between Tier 1 and Tier 2 energy sources matters because the state’s utilities are required to obtain more electricity from Tier 1 sources than Tier 2 [43]. In effect, the renewable energy credits that eligible renewable energy producers sell act as a type of subsidy. The Wheelabrator incinerator in Baltimore, for example, has received close to US$10 million in subsidies since 2011. It is also the city’s largest source of air pollution [44]. It contributes pollutants that make Baltimore home to the highest rate of emissions-related deaths of any big American city [46, 47]. Baltimore also ranks among the highest for emissions-related deaths from electricity generation [47] (Table 2).

TABLE 2.

US cities with the highest mortality rate (MR) due to PM2.5 concentrations attributable to the electricity generation sector per year per 100,000 people within the state

CityMR
Cleveland 36.8 
Washington, D.C. 35.2 
Baltimore 34.7 
Philadelphia 27.1 
Saint Louis 26.8 
CityMR
Cleveland 36.8 
Washington, D.C. 35.2 
Baltimore 34.7 
Philadelphia 27.1 
Saint Louis 26.8 

Source: Caiazzo et al. 2013 [47].

In 2010, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved an additional waste incinerator proposed by Energy Answers International for construction in Curtis Bay [48], a neighborhood in the southern part of Baltimore that already accounted for almost 90% of Baltimore’s industrial pollution [46]. A coal pier, chemical industries, refineries, and a medical waste incinerator render Curtis Bay the most polluted zip code in Maryland and contribute to high asthma rates and other respiratory illnesses [45]. The proposed addition of the Energy Answers International incinerator would have “burn[ed] 4,000 tons of trash per day and release[ed] 1,000 pounds of lead and 240 pounds of mercury into the surrounding neighborhood every year” [45].

Students at Benjamin Franklin High School, which would have been less than a mile from the proposed facility [46], began organizing a grassroots campaign against the incinerator in 2012 [48, 49]. Co-founded by Goldman Prize-winner Destiny Watford with support from United Workers, the student group Free Your Voice collected signatures and statements from residents opposed to the facility. According to the group, organizing strategies included performing a “rap about environmental injustice” issues exacerbated by the proposed incinerator at a Baltimore City school board meeting [49], and “mount[ing] a public pressure campaign across the region … [that] grew with national stories in the New York Times, Grist.org, and viral videos on social media promoted by 350.org and Pulitzer prize-winning author Margaret Atwood” [50]. Two important milestones in Free Your Voice’s campaign were successfully lobbying Baltimore’s public school district and the Baltimore City Board of Estimates to divest from the project in 2015 [46, 50]. Free Your Voice subsequently lobbied the Maryland Department of the Environment (DOE) to withdraw support for the incinerator [46]; ultimately, the DOE determined in March 2016 that Energy Answers International’s permit had expired, effectively shuttering the project [45, 51]. The Maryland state legislature continues to deliberate waste incineration’s status in the state’s RPS [52].

Watford and Free Your Voice’s activism presents a new dimension of the environmental justice movements against waste incineration that have been mobilized for decades. Specifically, while activists have rallied against several different kinds of environmental injustices that incinerators pose, this technology’s framing as a renewable energy source may present a new type of hurdle. To date, scholars have documented how incinerator sites have infamously been spatially correlated with economically marginalized and racialized communities [38, 53], how incinerator siting processes have unjustly excluded local communities and local knowledge from planning processes [54, 55], and how these facilities threaten the very livelihoods of communities whose income depends on access to discarded objects [56]. However, as policymakers continue to grapple with strategies to address climate change, the classification of waste incineration as a renewable energy technology may pose an additional challenge to movements for environmental justice by legitimating this controversial technology. Furthermore, as a case from Montgomery County, Maryland shows, even when the political will exists to shutter existing incinerators, looming questions still remain about waste management alternatives [57].

CONCLUSION

As renewable energy roll-out in the U.S. accelerates to keep up with increasingly ambitious renewable energy targets spelled out in state RPSs, important questions emerge around the types of energy technologies that these policies privilege. Waste incineration’s framing as a renewable energy technology may be one of the most easily recognized of these controversies, but there are other technologies as well that some environmental organizations contest do not belong in RPSs [10]. Coal mine methane, for example, is legitimated as a renewable energy source in Colorado and Pennsylvania [58, 59]. Animal waste has even garnered its own status as a required source of renewable energy in North Carolina [60]. And in California, among several other states, policymakers have been divided as to whether large-scale hydroelectric power should be included as an eligible technology under the state’s ambitious RPS [61]. These controversies will continue to complicate the swift and comprehensive transitions to renewable energy systems that climate change urgently and undeniably demands. With a growing number of states pursuing 100% clean energy goals, this case study has demonstrated that it is critically important to examine how definitions of renewability are developed, the uneven impacts that renewable energy technologies have on local communities, and how local communities engage with controversial renewable energy technology proposals.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. What are the arguments in favor of including municipal solid waste in renewable portfolio standards? What are the arguments against including municipal solid waste in renewable portfolio standards?

  2. What tactics did Free Your Voice use in its environmental justice campaign against the proposed Curtis Bay incinerator?

  3. Do you think municipal solid waste should be included in renewable portfolio standards? Why or why not? What other information would you need to make an informed recommendation?

  4. How should decisions be made about what is considered a renewable energy source?

  5. Who should be involved in making those decisions?

  6. Why do the specific technologies and energy sources included in U.S. state renewable portfolio standards vary?

I thank Jennifer Sedell and Nari Senanayake for their insightful feedback and engagement with this article during its development. I am also grateful to four anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback, which strengthened this work, as well as to Dustin Mulvaney for his excellent editorial guidance. Any errors or inconsistencies in the work remain my own.

FUNDING

No funding was provided for the preparation of this case study.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

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