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Don't take funds from green energy

Steam and fog enshrouds a stack at the

Steam and fog enshrouds a stack at the Covanta generating plant in Westbury (March 2, 2010) Credit: KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

Is garbage a renewable source of energy? This is not an idle question, but a pivotal policy debate that's playing out right now in the state's Public Service Commission. Nor is the answer just academic. It could negatively affect the state's efforts to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by using green renewables such as wind, solar and hydro. The commission should say no.

Actually, the commission has already said no -- not once but twice -- to the idea of including waste-to-energy plants in the list of renewable resources. Now Covanta Energy Corp., which runs four plants on Long Island, is asking the PSC to reverse its earlier stands. Covanta has done a good job running these plants, handling more than half of our trash, and converting it to energy. The byproduct is ash. That's safer to put in landfills than raw garbage, which state law no longer allows to be buried in Long Island landfills. So Covanta serves a useful purpose right now, but trash is not the energy source of the future.

The PSC first looked into waste-to-energy plants as part of its study of the renewable portfolio standard: the state's policy of increasing the percentage of renewable, clean energy that the state uses. The PSC adopted it in 2004, without the waste-to-energy plants. It repeated that rejection last year, and it revised the goal, which is now to raise the state's percentage of energy produced by renewables from 19.3 percent in 2004 to 30 percent by 2015.

That's not an easy goal, but there is a pool of money to encourage development of these resources. It comes from a fee paid by the ratepayers of investor-owned utilities in the state -- which does not include the Long Island Power Authority. By the end of last year, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority had spent or committed about $882 million from that fund on a variety of renewable projects, such as upstate wind.

But is garbage a renewable resource? People do keep producing trash, day after day, and burning it produces heat and energy. But the state's solid waste plan calls for an 85 percent reduction of the amount of garbage that New Yorkers produce by 2030. So, for a state that aims to produce less garbage, it would be starkly inconsistent to count garbage as a fuel of the future. Also the PSC set out a goal of developing new, clean technologies. Covanta says its technology is cleaner than landfilling. But it does emit greenhouse gases. The state wants to reduce its emissions of the gases by 80 percent by 2050.

When Covanta sought to expand its Hempstead plant, off Meadowbrook Parkway in Westbury, this page supported it. But the economy soured, and it fell through. Covanta says the current petition seeks renewable portfolio funding partly to do that expansion. It still seems like a worthwhile enhancement of that plant. But the funding should come out of the resources of Covanta, a profitable firm, not out of a finite pot of ratepayer money designed to stimulate the development of the cleaner, less greenhouse-gas-emitting technologies of the future. We can't meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals without those new technologies.

Though Covanta does perform a necessary service for Long Island, it's best that the PSC should stand firm and reject its petition.