Ten years ago, the Maryland General Assembly passed a clean energy law called the “Renewable Portfolio Standard.” It requires home owners and businesses across the state to pay a little bit more on their electric bills to subsidize the creation of renewable energy.
The law has a virtuous goal: to boost the percentage of the state’s energy generated in environmentally friendly ways from 10 percent today, to 20 percent by the year 2022.
But lawmakers included a loophole at the request of lobbyists for the paper industry. An industrial wood waste product –- a tar-like liquid called “black liquor” -- was included in the language of the bill as qualifying renewable energy source.
As a result, today, the single largest recipient of these clean energy subsidies is not wind farms or companies with solar panels on their roofs -- but out of state paper mills. About 45 percent of the Maryland’s renewable energy credits last year went to subsidize the burning of black liquor and wood waste, according to a 2013 report from the Maryland Public Service Commission. That’s triple the financial support the program gave to wind power and solar power, combined.
Oddly, the paper mills didn’t have to invest in any new technologies to receive millions of dollars a year in subsidies from Maryland rate payers. The burning of this tar-like liquid to generate electricity at has been a standard procedure at paper mills for decades.
“It is one of the most offensive subsidies to polluting companies in all of America,” said Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “It is flat out an inappropriate polar opposite of what clean electricity standards are all about.”
Maryland’s only paper factory, the Luke paper mill in Allegany County, receives about $350,000 in state subsidies for burning black liquor. Another $4 million to $5 million a year goes to out of state paper factories, according to state figures.
Bill Pitcher, a lobbyist for the Luke mill, argues that the inclusion of “black liquor” was not a loophole at all. He says that re-using a byproduct of manufacturing –- wood waste -- to generate electricity is environmentally beneficial, in part because it substitutes for burning some coal.
“This is a clean technology. Our position is that, No. 1 it’s not a pollutant at all,” Pitcher said. “And no. 2, it doesn’t add to the carbon situation because it is a carbon neutral process. It comes from trees that absorbed carbon for however long they were growing.”
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) does not agree that burning “black liquor” is carbon neutral or harmless to the climate. The Luke paper mill releases about 900,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide, according to an EPA report.
“The fact is that when we burn something now and release all the carbon in one instant we are speeding up the natural decomposition cycle and adding a more immediate and concentrated mass of carbon pollution to our atmosphere,” MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said in an email.
Amir Riaz, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland who studies carbon dioxide, agrees. He said that when trees are cut down, liquefied, and burned, they release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere much faster than if they were left alone to keep growing or die and decay and slowly release the greenhouse gas.
“It is not carbon neutral,” Riaz said of the burning of black liquor and other wood waste by paper mills. “Any substance that releases carbon dioxide when it is burned -– including black liquor -– it contributes to global warming and is therefore harmful.”
Beyond this global warming pollution, the boiler at the Luke mill that burns black liquor releases other pollutants, too, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and nearly 800 tons a year of soot-like particles that can trigger asthma and heart attacks. A 2011 EPA report says the paper factory releases about 200 tons of sulfuric acid per year.
The paper mill’s management says that the factory reduces its burning of coal by about a third by instead burning black liquor. But according to an EPA report, burning lack liquor can be just as bad as coal, in terms of releasing carbon dioxide when it is burned, and significantly worse than oil or natural gas.
Bottom line? Maryland’s clean energy law is liquored up and needs a dose of sobriety.
Proposed legislation in the Maryland General Assembly (House Bill 747 and Senate Bill 734) would phase out the subsidies for the inefficient burning of “black liquor” and remove this tar-like liquid from the state’s cabinet of renewable fuels.
A hearing is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. in the House Economics Committee.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo at top from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network)