Forget slots, energy bill boasts the lasting legacy

Assembly: A measure calling for investment in sustainable power sources could change the state for the better.

March 07, 2004|By Mike Tidwell | Mike Tidwell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With more than a month left in the Maryland legislative session, it might seem early to speculate on the legacy of the this year's General Assembly. But here's a prediction. Many years after the slots issue has been settled and the budget has been balanced and other matters have come and gone in Annapolis, this year's General Assembly may well be remembered for one crowning achievement: It brought clean, renewable energy to Maryland.

Last month, in a move meant to send a message, House Speaker Michael E. Busch stamped his name on the sponsorship of HB 1308. This bill, officially known as the "Maryland Renewable Portfolio Standard," would give incentives to clean energy development by requiring that 7.5 percent of all electricity used in Maryland come from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2014. More than 30 other delegates signed up co-sponsors and an equally impressive percentage of legislators have signed on to the Senate version of the bill.

It's not often that a bill comes along that brings so many benefits to so many Marylanders in so many different ways.

First, the bill would foster up to $1 billion worth of economic development in one of the state's poorest regions: Western Maryland. That's because wind power - one of the cheapest renewable resources available - is most abundant in the Appalachian mountains of western Maryland. Just one moderate-size wind farm - whose construction awaits passage of the Busch bill - would generate up to 175 construction jobs in windy Garrett County and yield more than $1 million annually in local tax revenue, becoming the county's biggest source of property tax.

Second, the bill would help stabilize and perhaps lower future electricity rates in Maryland. Power consumers in this state are in for great price volatility in coming years as price limits - imposed under electricity deregulation - are gradually removed and as natural gas-fired electricity continues to rise in price. But wind is a free resource, meaning developers need only amortize the cost of the modern windmills themselves. This allows for fixed 15-to-20-year contracts offered to utilities at prices that continue to drop nationwide.

Third, the bill would greatly improve public health over time. Wind and solar power produce none of the harmful pollutants and smog-forming nitrogen dioxide emissions associated with coal-fired power plants.

Some environmentalists have raised concerns about birds hitting the wind turbines, but the Busch bill calls for a technical advisory committee to develop siting guidelines to avoid hurting avian populations.

Admittedly, a target of 7.5 percent renewable energy, phased in over 10 years, will not clean the air alone. But this new demand for clean energy in Maryland, combined with similar clean-energy laws in 14 other states, would usher in new economies of scale that, in turn, would drastically lower prices over time. This would spur consumer demand - precisely as intended - far beyond the legislative target.

Then coal wouldn't seem like such a bargain anymore and pressure would rise to stop building these problematic plants. And workers at old, retiring coal plants could probably find work in the expanding wind industry, including a wind turbine manufacturing plant envisioned for Cumberland as the industry takes off.

Finally, the Busch bill fights global warming. By beginning the switch to clean energy, the legislation would reduce the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions associated with fossil fuel combustion. Maryland, a state with more than 3,000 miles of tidal shoreline, is exceptionally vulnerable to the 3 feet of sea-level rise scientists say could come from global warming unless we make a rapid worldwide switch to clean energy.

With all of these merits, what could possibly stop the Busch bill? The answer came during the bill's Annapolis hearing last week before the House Economic Matters Committee in a room crowded with supporters, including farmers, public health officials and representatives of Baltimore Gas and Electric.

Representatives of a handful of Maryland's largest industrial companies expressed concern about possible electricity rate increases. Wind power is still slightly more expensive than conventional electricity, they argued, and if clean energy costs don't drop as expected in the future, they would be stuck with painful cost increases.

But, supporters countered, none of the 14 states with similar laws has experienced notable rate increases attributable to the legislation. And none of the companies opposing the Maryland bill last week could name any U.S. company harmed or forced to move because of clean-energy requirements.

There is encouraging talk of a compromise in Annapolis in which Maryland industrial companies - who use a great deal of electricity - could reduce their renewable energy purchases under the bill if clear financial hardship can be demonstrated.

And if the bill passes as many predict, it will leave a proud legacy for years to come: job creation, consumer protection, health advancement, and a stand against probably this century's biggest threat - global warming. No wonder our children, living in a future Maryland full of clean power and fresh air, may well remember this year's General Assembly for getting the ball rolling with a clear vision and a good dose of political savvy.

Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, based in Takoma Park.

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