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Trash burner wants 'renewable' tag, funds

An aerial view of the Covanta Energy's Hempstead

An aerial view of the Covanta Energy's Hempstead facility, Long Island's largest waste-to-energy power plant. (Sept. 21, 2010) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

A decision is expected Thursday in Albany on whether plants that generate power by burning trash should be eligible for state renewable energy subsidies.

Covanta Energy, which operates four "waste-to-energy" incinerators on Long Island and another three upstate, petitioned the state Public Service Commission on the matter earlier this year.

Approval of the request would allow Covanta to apply for state money to help build new plants or expand existing ones, such as the company's flagship facility in Westbury. Prior plans to add incinerator capacity there and at the Town of Islip's Ronkonkoma plant both fizzled amid the economic downturn.

Local and state environmental advocates oppose Covanta's request, as does Con Edison and some solar and wind companies. Opponents say the plants produce harmful emissions such as mercury and dioxin, and that including them in the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard would siphon off money intended to promote low-emission sources of clean energy.

"We're talking millions and millions of dollars at stake," said Carol Murphy, executive director of the Albany-based nonprofit Alliance for Clean Energy, which represents renewable energy and energy efficiency firms and consultants.

But Covanta says its plants help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by burning garbage that would otherwise be carted off by truck to distant landfills. Company officials say their plants are less polluting than other technologies now approved for state renewable subsidies, such as electricity made from methane and other gases that seep up from trash buried in landfills.

"The state has acknowledged that waste is a [renewable energy] source by including landfill gas," said Michael Van Brunt, Covanta's director of sustainability. "We firmly believe we should be evaluated like those technologies have been evaluated."

He said access to state funding also would help Covanta compete for garbage disposal contracts against landfills that offer cheap tipping fees.

New York has already twice declined to include waste-to-energy in its Renewable Portfolio Standard, which is intended to increase the amount of such energy state residents consume.

In comments submitted to the commission in August, the state Department of Environmental Conservation disputed Covanta's figures on greenhouse gas emissions. The DEC also said that waste-to-energy facilities produce more emissions, with the exception of sulfur dioxide, on a per megawatt-hour basis than coal-powered plants.

While several Long Island environmental and health groups wrote to oppose Covanta's petition, it also garnered local support. The towns of Islip and Huntington, which dispose of waste at Covanta-run incinerators, both submitted letters urging the Public Service Commission to approve the request. So did the Long Island Association, a business advocacy group.

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