One of the most fascinating opportunities in the environmental and energy fields is the conversion of solid waste -- garbage -- into energy. The Post, in an editorial entitled "Garbage Power," spotlighted the potential by nothing that there are only about 30 trash-to-energy plants in operation in the United States.
While less than 2 percent of this country's municipal waste is being used to generate energy, Sweden and the Netherlands use 30 percent, Switzerland 40 percent and Denmark an astonishing 60 percent.
Progressive-minded Tidewater Virginia, I am pleased to say, has embarked on an innovative project that could become a model for the nation. Eight localities have joined together to form the Southeastern Public Service Authority, which will collect garbage, convert in into electricity and sell the electricity to the U.S. Navy at its Portsmouth shipyard. This arrangement will produce the energy equivalent of 2,000 barrels of oil per day, and save the Navy approximately $400 million in energy procurement costs over the life of the project. The process also will recover valuable metals from the trash and convert that would otherwise be waste heat into steam -- a significant technological advance. Thus the localities will get rid of one of their severest headaches, garbage disposal, and simultaneously obtain a new energy source.
What better national goal could there be than to have 25 percent of the nation's garbage processed into energy by 1990? That amount of energy would supply all of America's lighting needs and, simultaneously, reduce drastically requirements for landfills.
But major barriers to this conversion exist at the federal level. I became acquainted with them in trying to help the eight Virginia communities -- Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Franklin, and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton.
Under existing law, a public service authority can issue tax-exempt bonds, but not if the resulting product is to be sold to the government. Since the Navy will buy the energy produced in Tidewater, a change in the law was required. Despite opposition from the Treasury Department, I persuaded my congressional colleagues to make that change. How in heaven's name can we say to a locality that it can issue tax-exempt bonds to build a post office building, but not to preserve the environment and enhance the supply of energy? b
A second barrier we were able to hurdle was that the Treasury wanted the public service authority to have two separate bond issue: one would provide funding for the solid waste disposal facility, for which the bonds would be tax-exempt; the second, dealing with the energy-generating facility, would not be tax-exempt. Both the Senate and the Senate-House Conferees rejected the Treasury position and accepted my proposal, which is not a part of the windfall profits tax legislation.
Let me say that I favor tightening the use of tax-exempt bonds. But if ever a project deserved such consideration, it is a municipal public service project that converts solid waste into energy.
If Scandinavian and European countries can utilize 30 to 60 percent of their garbage to generate electricity, certainly we can and should utilize at least 25 percent of the nation's garbage. As The Post pointed out," Americans are now throwing away three-quarters of a ton of garbage per person per year -- and the amount is constantly increasing."
This is a field that the federal government should be encouraging rather than discouraging. A General Accounting Office study of this matter asserted: "If technological and economical viable waste-to-energy systems are to be used on an accelerated schedule in the near and mid-term, a more active role by the federal government is required."
I feel that, in most areas, the federal government's role should be reduced.
But in this one area a more active role by the government would benefit both our energy needs and our environment.