California looks to regain the lead in transforming trash into energy

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Government officials from around the world used to come to this port city to catch a glimpse of the future: Two-story piles of trash would disappear into a furnace and eventually be transformed into electricity to power thousands of homes.

Nowadays, U.S. officials are going to Canada, Japan and parts of Western Europe to see the latest advances.

The Long Beach plant, for all its promise when it began operations roughly 20 years ago, still churns out megawatts. But it is a relic, a symbol of how California, one of America's greenest states, fell behind in the development of trash-to-energy technology.

"I am having a hard time explaining why California is so far behind," said Eugene Tseng Tseng, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor who spent the last three months leading delegations on overseas tours.

While so-called biorefineries have blossomed abroad, concerns that technique would undermine recycling efforts and create worse air pollution stalled efforts in California. With space for garbage dumps dwindling, proponents of a new breed of the technology hope to win over detractors.

Los Angeles County officials want to build three plants for $200 million to demonstrate how far the technology has come, as they scramble for alternatives to closing the world's largest landfill and shipping trash four hours by rail to an abandoned gold mine near the Mexican border.

But even if they succeed at reducing waste and producing power, there's no guarantee that they'll usher in a wave of garbage-gobbling technology.

Efforts to pass legislation that would have given waste-to-energy plants credit toward recycling and renewable energy goals, so cities could meet state mandates, hit a snag this year when some environmentalists said such facilities are no different from incinerators, which do not receive credits.