Politics & Government

Trash-burning plant protected in California climate fights

The Stanislaus Resource Recovery Facility, a waste-to-energy plant in Stanislaus County, holds a unique position in California’s climate fights.
The Stanislaus Resource Recovery Facility, a waste-to-energy plant in Stanislaus County, holds a unique position in California’s climate fights. The Sacramento Bee/David Siders

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León proposed legislation last week to increase the amount of electricity California derives from renewable sources, continuing the Capitol’s longstanding tradition of excluding from what counts as “renewable” any power generated from burning household trash.

But de León, like lawmakers before him, acknowledged one exception: Any garbage-burning facility “located in Stanislaus County that was operational prior to September 26, 1996.”

The carve-out, tucked into existing law and included – with significant limitations – in de León’s proposal, applies to only one plant in California, a Central Valley incinerator that has stood for years as a tradeoff to moderate Democrats for their support on controversial environmental bills.

Former Rep. Dennis Cardoza, then a Democratic assemblyman from Merced, demanded the Legislature make the facility eligible for renewable energy credits when it adopted an energy standard in 2002. Lawmakers sustained the facility’s special status when they updated the bill nine years later, leaving the provision intact to avoid complicating passage of an already-difficult bill.

Cardoza supports waste-to-energy technology and cited the economic benefit to his district of the Stanislaus County plant. But the environmental benefits of burning garbage are hotly debated, and the state’s two other plants that burn municipal solid waste, both in Southern California, have never been classified as renewable energy sources.

Now, as the Legislature prepares to take up a sweeping package of environmental legislation – including a proposal to expand California’s renewable energy law – the Stanislaus County facility, off Interstate 5 in the farmlands south of Patterson, is emerging as a point of focus once again. The plant’s energy designation is significant because renewable power can be sold at a premium.

“These pet projects, it seems kind of ridiculous,” said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “It seems like decisions should be made on whether it’s beneficial to the state as a whole.”

De León’s proposal would let stand any renewable energy credits claimed by utilities for electricity they have already purchased from the Stanislaus Resource Recovery Facility, as well as energy produced this year. But it would eliminate the facility’s special status as a renewable energy source starting in 2016.

Two days after the pro tem announced the bill, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, began pushing back. He said that while the Legislature has given wealthier, coastal California areas special treatment, including with a film tax credit benefiting Hollywood interests, the Valley “seems to keep coming out on the losing end.”

Gray defended the carve-out for the Stanislaus County facility and said its permanent extension should be “part of the discussion” in the upcoming debate over de León’s environmental package.

“I’m not going to support policies that don’t ensure some success for every Californian in every community,” he said.

De León and Gov. Jerry Brown have proposed, among other measures, reducing petroleum use in cars by as much as 50 percent within 15 years and increasing to one-half from one-third the proportion of electricity derived from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

The Stanislaus County plant, operated by a New Jersey-based company, Covanta, is one of three municipal waste-burning facilities that opened in California in the 1980s. The company said the plant processes about 800 tons of municipal solid waste each day and generates as much as 22 megawatts of power, enough for about 20,000 homes.

The technology, in which steam from burning trash is converted into electricity, diverts garbage from landfills, a source of the potent greenhouse gas methane. It also recovers metals that might otherwise not be recycled.

But the process itself emits greenhouse gases and smog-forming pollutants, and the Legislature generally excluded such facilities when it first required utilities to get a portion of their electricity from renewable sources in 2002.

The exemption for the Covanta facility, said Matt Freedman, staff attorney for The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, was a “naked special interest deal.” By contrast, a bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, to expand renewable energy eligibility to the state’s other two combustion facilities, in Long Beach and Commerce, died in committee in 2013.

“It’s not a big deal in the scheme of things,” Freedman said. “However, I think that there is a goal of trying to rationalize the policy going forward, and it’s not clear why a single facility of this resource type should receive special treatment when there’s a general policy of not allowing trash burning to count as a renewable energy.”

Jeff Ruoss, the manager at the Covanta facility, said the ability to sell renewable energy credits is “part of the basic financial stability of the plant.” As truckloads of trash pulled into his facility one recent morning, Ruoss lamented environmentalists’ ongoing criticism of household waste-to-energy technology.

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “I got into this business right out of college because I thought – and I still believe – it’s environmentally friendly.”

Cardoza on Friday said it’s better to turn trash into energy “and not have to use ag land to landfill it.” Including the Stanislaus County facility in the energy bill in 2002, he said, “made the economics work.”

“You know, Stanislaus County was really trying to do some cutting-edge things that were really unique and forward-leaning at a time when it wasn’t common,” Cardoza said. “This was a really important economic plant and ecological plant that panned out for the county and, I think, for the region.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.