The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center near downtown Minneapolis. Credit: MPCA / Creative Commons

Three prominent Minnesota environmental and community action organizations recently announced they are joining forces in an effort to close a solid waste incinerator on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

The Sierra Club’s statewide chapter, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Minnesota Public Interest Research Group met in April to create a collective campaign to close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, better known as HERC.

The groups’ concerns — primarily about local impacts from pollution — put them at odds with Minnesota state policy, which places a higher value on waste-to-energy production over landfills. While the state emphasizes reuse and recycling, roughly one-fifth of Minnesota’s garbage is used for energy production, making it a national leader in the technology.

Two recent decisions by municipalities outside Minneapolis indicate that waste-to-energy will be part of the state’s energy landscape for the foreseeable future, despite whatever happens in the effort to close HERC.

‘Renewable’ garbage

Both cases involve “refuse derived fuel” (RDF) plants, which first remove recyclable garbage and then prepare it for incineration at nearby waste-to-energy facilities.

In February, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission denied objections to the approval it gave Xcel Energy to designate $2 million of its Renewable Development Fund to the city of Red Wing to allow the purchase of a larger shredder for its Solid Waste Management Campus.

That decision, which revitalized the city’s waste recovery plant, also had the additional impact of moving the needle on a dispute between Goodhue County, where Red Wing is located, and the state over money for recycling planning.

Meanwhile, last fall two of the state’s most populous counties — Ramsey, home to St. Paul, and Washington, its eastern neighbor — announced they would collectively buy a once privately owned RDF facility that is much larger than the one in Red Wing.

By state law, the counties can require haulers to take trash to the RDF facilities as long as they meet Minnesota Pollution Control Agency mandates, which effectively means all trash not recycled or composted in those three counties will be incinerated for power.

That electricity is deemed renewable both by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota’s own pollution control authorities, a point of contention among environmental advocates.

The moves by the counties are not just about producing energy, but also about getting rid of garbage. A 2014 law calls for counties to recycle and compost 75 percent of the state’s solid waste by 2030, up from 50 percent now.

Minnesota as a waste-to-energy leader

The strategy of reducing and eliminating landfills places Minnesota closer to international trends than national ones. And no other Midwest state comes close to its devotion to garbage incineration.

Minnesota has nine waste-to-energy plants, more than the rest of the region combined. They collectively produce enough electricity to power around 100,000 homes, according to the Minnesota Resource Recovery Association. The Midwest has only six other plants in three states, three of those are in Michigan.

“Connecticut, Minnesota, Florida and New York are leaders,” said Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta, which operates a waste-to-energy plant in downtown Minneapolis as well as several others around the country.

But the United States remains a laggard, with fewer than 100 waste-to-energy plants, compared to more than 400 in Europe, more than 300 in Asia and 100 under construction in China, he said. Minnesota officials say 8 percent of U.S. energy needs are met by waste-to-energy.

China’s goal is to burn 30 percent of its waste for electricity by 2030, Gilman said, while in the U.S. “there hasn’t been any policy to drive sustainable waste management. There is no one that stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute there’s a system here,’ and we think about it as a system in terms of material management…there’s not great national policy and not great leadership at the federal level or the state level, except for a few instances.”

A waste-to-energy history

In 1980, Minnesota passed a waste management law that put a premium on recycling, composting and processing remaining garbage for waste, according to Sigurd Scheurle, a planner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who has worked on solid waste management issues for 30 years.

What has emerged are several waste-to-energy incinerators serving dozens of counties around the state, located in Minneapolis, Elk River, Perham and Alexandria. Over the past decade, several have been expanded.

All of the state’s municipal incinerators first remove trash that can be recycled, and produce either steam or electricity as an end product.

In 2013 the state’s residents and businesses tossed 5.8 million tons of trash. Of that, 1.2 million tons went for waste-to-energy; 2.4 million tons for recycling; and .3 tons were recovered for composting, according to an MPCA report.

RDF’s second wind

Ramsey and Washington counties agreed to buy the Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) plant in Newport late last year for $24.4 million after the company announced it planned to sell the facility. Haulers bring trash not only from those two counties, but also others in the metro region.

The facility sends RDF to an Xcel plant in Mankato as well as Red Wing. Prior to the purchase, the plant struggled to compete against lower-cost landfill sites, a situation resulting in Ramsey and Washington officials offering haulers subsidies to bring their trash to Newport.

County officials have said recycling collected by the Newport plant could eventually create as many as 4,000 jobs through manufacturing products from trash.

Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt believes the decision to buy the incinerator made economic and environmental sense. Taxpayers had invested millions of dollars in the facility since it opened in 1984, with little control over its operations, she said.

By owning Newport, the county can begin to investigate uses for trash other than for incineration, such as “gasification” of municipal trash that has begun in Edmonton, Alberta through a process developed by Enerkem. The result of the gasification produces ethanol, methanol or other fuels.

The Edmonton plant began production of methanol last summer. For Reinhardt, the example is just one of a future where garbage might fuel cars rather than be incinerated for power.

The key to doing a program like that is control of the garbage supply chain, Reinhardt said. Buying the RDF facility is “doing the right thing for residents, business owners and taxpayers,” she said.

“If somebody told me two years ago I would be advocating for this (the purchase of the plant) as an environmentalist I would tell them they are crazy,” Reinhardt said.

The Red Wing project differs greatly from the Ramsey-Washington approach. The RFD plant processes more than 20,000 tons of garbage and then sends it a few miles away to a converted former coal plant on the Mississippi River.

That facility can burn 200,000 tons of RDF annually, enough to provide power for half the city’s homes. It will incinerate all of Red Wing’s waste and a good percentage of Newport’s output, too.

Jeff Schneider, Red Wing’s deputy director of public works, said the city stopped running its money-losing garbage incinerator in 2013 and began immediately afterward using a mobile diesel-fueled shredder to prepare RDF for the Xcel plant.

The $2 million from the renewable energy fund — which generally supports solar projects — does not totally pay for a permanent shredder and other changes to the plant, which will likely require another $3 million to $4 million to complete, he said.

The RDF process today in Red Wing captures anything that can be recycled — copper, steel, plastics 1 and 2, aluminum cans — before shredding the rest and transporting it to the Xcel plant, he said.

Despite the RDF plant’s reputation for busting the city’s budget and causing  $500,000 in losses some years, Schneider argues it still makes economic sense to have garbage burned instead of sent to landfills, where potential leakage can pollute groundwater and soil, he said.

The plant currently uses a mobile shredder, purchased in 2013, that uses diesel fuel.  The grant money will be used to buy a new stationary shredder powered by electricity, which is cheaper.

To Schneider, the new shredder will cause less economic distress because of greater efficiency and the processing of a greater amount of trash. Under state law Goodhue County can require all haulers to bring their loads to Red Wing.

“Even if I get zero dollars per ton it’s better than paying for disposal,” he said. “People have to understand it is a renewable energy and it may not be solar, it may not be wind, but it still provides a component of the portfolio. And this material is not going away.”

Environmentalist Alan Muller was one of the few critics of the investment. “If you put that energy into maximizing recycling it would yield actual benefits,” he said. “It’s well demonstrated that at every stage of the municipal waste stream you can save far more energy by recycling than you can ever generate by burning it up.”

The “hierarchy of waste” the PCA and other government bodies follow calls for a prevention, reuse and recycling before waste-to-energy or landfill, he pointed out, yet “there is zero emphasis in Red Wing or Goodhue County on recycling.”

Goodhue County now, at least, will have a $300,000 grant to create a waste reduction plan. While county commissioner Dan Rechtzigel doesn’t love the resulting agreement, he did not disagree with Muller’s characterization of the county’s weak recycling efforts.

“We don’t go out and encourage people to recycle,” he said. “We have to do a better job of making people aware of the bins so they will use them.”

Is burning trash safe?

The sentiment that burning trash for waste is a good idea is not universally shared. “Burning garbage is the most expensive and environmentally harmful way to get rid of garbage,” said Neil Seldman, senior staff of the waste-to-wealth initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Research by Mike Ewall of the Environmental Justice Network reveals garbage incineration produces twice as much carbon pollution as coal. Critics of landfills often point to the problem of methane emissions, he said, but if food waste is separated out those emissions can be dramatically reduced.

Seldman points out the Red Wing and Newport facilities are older, and therefore much more expensive to operate. As much as 20 to 30 percent of the trash headed for RDF plants will end up in landfills when a facility’s operations cease operation for regular maintenance, Seldman argued.

Ash left over from incineration ends up often being used as top cover for landfills, another potential source of pollution, he said.

The HERC, in the booming North Loop neighborhood in central Minneapolis, has been a particular flash point over this issue.

Karen Monahan, an organizer with the Sierra Club, sees the HERC as an issue of environmental justice. Several elementary schools and poor African American neighborhoods north of the plant are impacted by emissions, she said.

A “national emissions inventory” from the EPA showed that in 2011 HERC ranked number one in arsenic emissions, she pointed out. The plant ranked second in chromium III and VI emissions, third in nickel emissions and fifth in condensible particulate matter, according to analysis from the EJN.

So far activist groups such as the Sierra Club have clipped expansion efforts by HERC. The county dropped a 2012 plan to expand incineration at the plant after a coordinated campaign by the Sierra Club and other activists representing environmental and neighborhood organizations.

Monahan’s concern is that crediting trash incineration as renewable energy allows utilities to continue burning fossil fuels at other plants instead of investing in wind or solar.

That’s not how the PCA or Covanta sees waste-to-energy, of course. The PCA’s principal engineer, Anne Jackson, said plants in the state have complied with all state and federal emission standards.

Still, waste-to-energy plants have troublesome emissions: In looking at EPA data from 2012, Jackson found that nitrogen oxide emissions are twice as high at waste-to-energy facilities in Minnesota as coal-fired plants.

Her research showed an average of 8.02 pounds per megawatt hour (MWh) for nitrogen oxide in waste-to-energy plants, compared to 3.05 pounds per MWh for coal plants. Waste-to-energy plants emit 9.4 percent more carbon dioxide but less sulfur dioxide than coal plants, she said. None of those emissions, however, violate the law.

Keeping emissions low enough to comply with laws remains an expensive task. “There’s a lot of pollution control equipment, a lot more than a coal-fired plant,” Jackson said.

In a presentation Covanta’s Gilman provided, the company argues that recycling increases within a waste-to-energy system because it’s picked over a second time — first by the consumers and businesses, and again at the incinerator.

European countries with WTE facilities have much higher recycling rates than the U.S. as a result. The presentation claims that WTE — or “energy from waste” — has negative greenhouse gas emissions after considering avoided landfill emissions, according to a study. None of the nine pollutants — acids, heavy metals — that the EPA monitors were not anywhere near the legal limit in terms of emissions, Gilman said.

Municipal and privately owned waste burners have improved their pollution controls dramatically over the past 30 years and many have emissions well below federal government limits, he said. “The notion that these plants emit more than coal plants aren’t shown by the facts,” Gilman said.

For opponents, there may be a silver lining. Red Wing and the Ramsey-Washington deals send garbage to aging plants and there are no plans on the books for any new waste-to-energy facilities.

Xcel Energy does not mention more waste-to-energy plants in its most recent integrated resource plan that covers the next 15 years. “It’s not something I see in the near term,” said Laura McCarten, Xcel’s regional vice president. “It’s not part of the energy mix we see, but things in the field can change.”

Jackson, the PCA’s chief engineer, agrees. The agency is “not expecting any proposals for expanding municipal waste solid waste facilities anytime soon,” she said.

(Correction:  The original story reported that the Enerkem plant in Edmonton wasn’t constructed. Company officials said the plant opened last summer.)


Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.