Picture "renewable energy," and you probably think of turning windmills and sun rays on solar panels. Now add to that mental catalog a pile of old tires.
The state Utilities Commission is allowing power plants in Roxboro and Southport to earn green energy credit for tires they burn to produce electricity.
Old tires don't have much of an organic look, except for the dirt on them. But because they contain some natural rubber, commission members decided that the plants, owned by CPI USA, should get renewable energy certificates for burning them to generate electricity. The plants burn coal, wood and shredded tires, and they will get the certificates - commodities they can sell - for the wood and the proportion of the tire scraps that contain natural rubber.
The Utilities Commission is responsible for implementing a 2007 law requiring power companies to generate more energy from renewable resources, including the sun, wood and wind.
Under the law, Progress Energy and Duke Energy must derive 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources and efficiency programs by 2021. Municipal utilities and electric cooperatives must also meet renewable energy and efficiency goals.
Utilities can meet their requirements by generating their own renewable energy, purchasing it or buying renewable energy certificates of the kind the CPI USA plants and other power producers earn. The value of credits varies according to the type of energy. It's unclear how much energy from tires would be worth.
At the time, the 2007 legislation was heralded as groundbreaking for the Southeast, even though it wasn't all about sunlight and breezes. Some legislators are still miffed that chicken litter and pig manure count as renewable resources.
Whether to classify used tires as organic or a renewable energy resource never came up.
"It's positively ludicrous," said Elizabeth Ouzts, executive director of Environment North Carolina. Ouzts gave commissioners some credit, half-heartedly, for allowing the plants to count only the natural rubber part of the tire for the renewable energy certificates, and not the whole thing.
The Roxboro and Southport plants are the first in the state to ask that shredded tires count as renewable energy, said Utilities Commission Chairman Edward S. Finley Jr.
Finley talked about the tire decision in his report to a legislative commission last week. "You might not like that, but that's what we did," he said, half under his breath.
In its application, the plants' owner said scrap tires can be considered "renewable" because the state collects more than 166,000 tons of them a year and because using shredded tires to generate power promotes the legislature's policy goals.
Burning tires for power is a good alternative to dumping the scraps in landfills, said Terry McDaniel, site manager of the Roxboro plant.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees and calls shredded tires "a viable alternative to fossil fuels" on its Web site.
Burning tires produces more energy than coal, according to the EPA Web site. Emissions of some forms of air pollutants are lower with tires than they are for coal, the EPA said, especially coal with a lot of sulfur.
The Utilities Commission did not agree with the company's assertion that tires are a renewable resource but acknowledged that they include organic material.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, said the commission's decision surprised her.
"We were joking whether the Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend would qualify" for renewable energy certifi cates, she said.
Samuelson's main question was how the commission would determine how much of what's burned is synthetic and how much is natural rubber.
The company must submit periodic reports to the Utilities Commission on the topic. CPI's lawyer, in a report last month, said about 24 percent of the shredded tire supply is natural rubber.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a legislator who worked on the 2007 energy bill, said she was troubled by the commission's decision.
"The whole thing kind of confounds me," said Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat. "I know that's not what we had in mind."
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