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Our View: Customers should decide whether to support RRT

When the Newport facility that turns garbage into energy opened in the 1980s, it was with a noble mission: keep garbage out of landfills and produce energy at the same time.

Seeing the goal as serving the public good, both Ramsey and Washington counties contributed toward the construction of the facility and continue to subsidize it. Now, both counties are gradually decreasing the amounts by which they subsidize the plant, though, pushing the plant to be more self-sufficient and forcing the facility to raise its rates for trash haulers.

Haulers aren't mandated to dump garbage there, but some feel pressured to do so in order to keep enough waste coming into the plant.

Some might argue that the county should continue subsidizing the facility, but we think the county's position is fair. The issue is not clear-cut enough to mandate that everyone pay the bill for this plant. The idea that keeping garbage out of landfills is in the public interest is an obvious one, but equally valid are arguments against funding the plant -- like it would be better to put taxpayers' money into recycling programs and that burning the refuse-derived fuel also causes pollution. That's why it's only fair to let individuals choose whether they want to support this effort for themselves.

The truth is that turning fuel into energy at this plant costs more than burying it in a landfill, and consumers should be the ones to decide whether they're willing to pay more for the peace of mind of knowing that their garbage is being repurposed.

Ideally, energy consumers should also have the option to pay more to support resource-derived fuel. Xcel already has a program called Windsource where customers can pay a premium so that a portion or all of the energy they use comes from wind power. Customers pay for the blocks of electricity and then the company must generate the equivalent amount of power through wind. Something similar could be done with energy from garbage, with the proceeds going back to the plant that supplies the energy.

When that happens, maybe there will be high consumer demand, and the plant will expand. Or, maybe the demand will be so low, the plant will be closed, leaving open the opportunity to test new strategies for dealing with garbage. One promising technology is plasma gasification, which breaks down trash with high pressure and high heat creating flammable gas that can be turned into electricity. This type of plant is planned in Superior, Wis.

So, even if the plant cannot survive, that doesn't mean the possibility of turning trash to energy won't exist in a different form.

No matter what the future is for the RRT plant, the effort has not been a failure. It continues to save land from being filled with trash, and it holds an important place on the continuum of technologies that can help us turn environmental problems into solutions. One man's trash literally becomes another man's electricity. Despite the high cost, that's a pretty amazing accomplishment.