Hennepin County's trash incinerator no longer 'renewable energy' — and its future is up in the air

An Environmental Justice bus tour of North Minneapolis parks
An Environmental Justice bus tour of North Minneapolis parks outside the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center on Sept. 3, 2022, in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

You can thank trash for keeping the lights on in Minneapolis' North Loop neighborhood.

An incinerator there called the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, known colloquially as the HERC, has been burning trash to create steam since the late 1980s. That makes energy for its neighbor, Target Field, and some of the neighborhood.

But under a new Minnesota law, the HERC is no longer considered renewable energy, putting its future in flux.

MPR News guest host Emily Bright spoke with Sahan Journal’s environmental reporter, Andrew Hazzard, who has been following the story.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Well, you can thank trash for keeping the lights on in Minneapolis's North Loop. An incinerator there, called the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, known colloquially as the HERC, has been burning trash to create steam since the late 1980s. That makes energy for its neighbor Target Field and some of the neighborhood.

But under a new Minnesota law, the HERC is no longer considered renewable energy. And that puts its future in flux. Andrew Hazzard is an environmental reporter for The Sahan Journal. And he's been following that story. Andrew, thanks for being here.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER: So how does a facility like the HERC work? And what sets it apart from an ordinary landfill?

ANDREW HAZZARD: So the HERC is what's called a waste-to-energy incinerator. Basically, the HERC burns trash. So local trash companies, cities, they will bring massive amounts of dump trucks full of trash into the HERC. The HERC will then gather all this trash and pick it up using this big crane thing that sort of looks like a pick-a-stuffed-animal game at an arcade, bring it over, and burn it.

And by burning that trash, you create a lot of steam, using that steam that can be used to heat things. It can also be used to be converted into energy. As you mentioned, the HERC powers Target Field. It also supplies enough energy for about 25,000 homes.

But by burning that trash, you also create a number of pollutants. So the main difference between a real landfill is that the volume of the waste immediately gets reduced, right? But by doing that, you are burning plastic and food waste and whatever. And that sends particles into the air, which cause concern for a lot of people.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. How much energy does a facility like this create compared to other forms of renewable energy?

ANDREW HAZZARD: It does not create that much energy in the relative sense. This creates enough energy for about 25,000 homes. This would not be anything close to what you might see out of a traditional power plant or a large wind farm or anything like that. It's a relatively minor part of its overall value. The county really sees this as a waste management tool. And energy producing is secondary to that.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So is there any advantage to an incinerator over a landfill environmentally?

ANDREW HAZZARD: That is actually a question that is, well, up for debate. Right now, the EPA is revising what is called its waste hierarchy. It's kind of like a food pyramid type situation but for how bad is this solution for the environment to manage our trash, if that makes any sense.

So there is a split difference on this. Landfills can be bad. They produce methane. They can potentially contaminate groundwater if they're not properly contained. Incinerators produce these airborne pollutions. And then they also produce this highly concentrated toxic ash, which does, in fact, need to be landfilled, though in a far smaller volume.

And, basically, incinerators were seen as this way to get toward energy independence during the late 1970s. And this was one of the solutions that was proposed. In recent years that's been relooked at with the knowledge that we have about air pollution. And so now it's sort of up for debate. But it's a bit of a who's the tallest person in Munchkinland situation, where there's no real winners there for the environment.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So refresh us on that carbon-free energy bill Governor Walz signed in February. What's inside that bill?

ANDREW HAZZARD: So a number of things are inside the 100% by 2040 Clean Energy Bill. One of them is provision that no longer lists the HERC as a renewable energy source. Minnesota has seven incinerators in the state. They're all waste-to-energy facilities. They were all previously subject to renewable energy, which means they could have renewable energy credits.

The Minneapolis delegation in the legislature has fought for years to take the HERC off of that list, other incinerators as well. But they included a provision that said incinerators in an environmental justice community as determined by income levels and diversity statistics would no longer be considered renewable energy. Therefore, the HERC is no longer considered a source of renewable energy.

And that's important because experts say that brings it more in line with reality, right? Renewable energy comes from water power. It comes from wind power. It comes from solar power. It comes from these things that keep on giving. Burning trash, which is mostly plastic scraps or food waste, that sort of thing, that's a really hard sell as a renewable form of energy.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. So it sounds like the HERC was singled out in the bill because of its location. Is that correct?

ANDREW HAZZARD: That is correct, yes. This has been something that environmental justice advocates in Minneapolis and in the Twin Cities area have fought against for a very long time. And, basically, they were able to get this provision included in this bill.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I want to get to that environmental pushback. So what are the concerns of the people who live around this facility who are pushing against it?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Well, the concerns are that it's a major producer of different pollution sources, including carbon dioxide, including nitrogen, including mercury, including lead. And when these substances go into the air and we breathe them in, they can have negative impacts on our health. They lead to increases in asthma, increases in heart disease.

And there are neighborhoods that are adjacent to the HERC on the North Side of Minneapolis that have high numbers of low-income residents, high numbers of residents of color. And those neighborhoods also have some of the highest occurrences of asthma in the state and other pollution-related diseases. And so that's a big concern, that this is a pollution source that is close to these areas, that is contributing to people who are already disproportionately bearing the burdens of pollution.

INTERVIEWER: Have there been pushes over the years to reduce the amount of pollution they emit?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Yes, there have been. There has been several fights over the HERC really since it started in the late 1980s. And, to be fair, they do have procedures in place. They have filters in place to try and mitigate the amount of pollution that is coming out of the HERC.

There are a number of techniques that the county uses to try and basically filter out some of these particles. But, at the end of the day, it is still a polluting facility. And it is still a source of concern for many people in the area.

INTERVIEWER: So what does that mean for its continued operation?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Well, right now things are a little bit in flux. Hennepin County is currently working through a zero-waste plan, basically a plan to get the state's largest county to divert 90% of its waste from landfills and incinerators, right? And so the goal is to recycle more, recycle better, to do more organics recycling and composting. But there are also changes that will need to be made that are far outside of the county's control, such as different packaging laws, cultural changes in how much that we consume in this country and how we consume and how we throw stuff away.

But what's happening with the HERC right now is the question of whether this 2040 law creates a deadline for the HERC. And right now, the county has been very hesitant to put any sort of official deadline or plan to officially phase out the HERC or close the HERC in the near future. That has not happened yet. I did hear from Hennepin County Board Chair Irene Fernando, who represents this area, that she expects to be able to announce something about future plans for the HERC within the year.

But this is a big question. And this is a facility that manages 45% of the waste in Hennepin County. And so I think they want to have a sure plan in place because no one wants to be the politician who's responsible for any kind of trash back-up or build-up in their communities.

INTERVIEWER: Andrew, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you for your time.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Thank you very much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Andrew Hazzard is an environmental reporter for The Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. You can read his reporting at sahanjournal.com.

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