The energy answer is blowing in the wind

February 20, 2003|By Kumar Barve and Delores Kelley

GIVEN THE great budget crisis in Annapolis and new potential for partisan disagreement, it's good to know there's one bill almost everyone can support in this General Assembly.

The legislation would bring more than $500 million worth of economic development to Maryland's poorest counties. It would simultaneously help foster energy security, clean our air, combat global warming and lead to significant potential savings to millions of Maryland electricity users.

Best of all, this bill wouldn't cost taxpayers a penny, which is partly why it has strong support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Annapolis and from nearly 70 percent of likely voters across the state, according to independent polling.

What is this legislation? It's a clean energy bill, called the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law. Simply put, the RPS bill would require that Maryland utilities obtain a modest 7.5 percent of their electricity from clean renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal by 2013. Fourteen states, including nearby New Jersey and New York, already have such laws.

By guaranteeing demand for clean, home-grown energy, the RPS bill helps the renewable energy industry grow stronger and lower its prices. This, in turn, makes America more energy independent just as global oil and natural gas supplies are shrinking and becoming more prone to terrorist attack.

This bill also would stimulate lots of economic investment right where Maryland needs it most.

The most cost-effective and fastest-growing renewable energy source is wind power, and the economically depressed counties of Western Maryland hold most of the state's wind resources. A wind farm planned for mountainous Garrett County would create 174 construction jobs and, by itself, become one of the biggest single taxpayers in the county, providing millions of dollars for hospitals, schools and roads.

For these reasons, the delegation of senators and delegates from western-most Maryland - most of them Republicans - strongly support this bill.

Simply put, this is a pro-business piece of legislation. Even oil giant Texas passed an RPS bill under then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. The result? Well over $1 billion worth of wind farm development in Texas in three years.

Despite these benefits, some electric utilities have opposed RPS legislation in the past, fearing it would raise electricity rates. But in the 14 states with RPS laws now, there's no evidence that the legislation has led to a single rate hike. Indeed, a growing number of utilities across the nation strongly support such laws, and utilities in Texas that once fought the law now buy more wind power than required by the legislation.

Of course, wind power is still slightly more expensive than natural gas-fired electricity (the source of most new electricity generation). But the price of natural gas is extremely volatile and is projected to rise dramatically in coming years. Wind is free, meaning wind farms can simply factor in the cost of wind mill construction and maintenance, and then offer utilities gloriously fixed 15-year contracts. This makes wind a valuable hedge against large future spikes in natural gas prices, thus protecting customers.

Finally, let's not forget that renewable energy is good for the environment. With enough growth, clean power would help reduce acid rain, skyrocketing asthma rates, and emissions of greenhouse gases. And it would help preserve our wondrous Chesapeake Bay.

Wind farms and other renewable energy facilities, of course, must be properly sited to prevent impacts on bird populations and mountain ecosystems, and this bill contains language guaranteeing proper protection.

It's rare, especially in a period of fiscal austerity, that a bill comes along with something for everyone: environmentalists and industry, Democrats and Republicans, poor counties and general consumers.

For the sake of all Marylanders, we encourage the House of Delegates and Senate to promptly pass the RPS bill. We will then encourage Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., like Governor Bush before him, to sign it into law.

Kumar Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is majority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. Delores Kelley is a Democrat who represents Baltimore in the Maryland Senate. Neither of them is a sponsor of the RPS bill.

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