The state began its pursuit of offshore wind generation Tuesday, a move that could lead to building 400-foot-tall turbines off Ocean City.
The Maryland Energy Administration asked wind developers to express their interest in building industrial-size windmills a dozen or more miles off the state's 31-mile coastline. At the same time, the energy agency said it is launching a study to gauge the economic viability and environmental impact of such a project.
"We know Maryland has great wind resources off our shore," said Malcolm Woolf, state energy administrator. "We've got to figure out how best to tap into them."
Maryland officials, eager to meet goals for more renewable energy sources, have approved two wind farms in the western part of the state. But Maryland is following other Mid-Atlantic states in pursuing offshore wind power.
Delaware recently settled on Bluewater Wind, a subsidiary of a national energy firm, to build a 230-megawatt string of turbines 13 miles off Rehoboth Beach. New Jersey has tapped Bluewater and two other companies to develop wind projects off its coast.
Woolf said the new study will give developers technical information on wind speeds and ocean depths, so they can decide where or whether to bid for building offshore turbines. The study, which is expected to be completed early next year, also will outline areas where turbines might not be appropriate, such as shipping lanes or sensitive marine habitats.
State officials, meanwhile, plan to huddle with local leaders to test community sentiment in Maryland's beach resort to having turbines visible on the eastern horizon - though wind developers say their generators would appear no larger than a toothpick at those distances.
"We don't want this to be tied up in community battles for years," Woolf said, alluding to the long-running dispute in Massachusetts over building wind turbines off Cape Cod.
The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that Maryland has "outstanding" wind for power generation offshore, with steady breezes of about 18 mph to 20 mph about 160 feet above the waves - roughly the height at which the turbine blades would spin. But state officials want to test for themselves and to give wind developers more information for planning.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources also has teamed up with the Nature Conservancy to analyze how birds, bats, fish and other marine animals might be affected by placing turbines on the ocean bottom.
"We want to identify those areas offshore that may be more or less suitable for wind energy development," said Gwynne Schultz, the department's senior ocean and coastal policy adviser.
Should the state decide after the studies to proceed, it could invite proposals from offshore wind companies, which would then bid to acquire long-term leases from the federal government on portions of the Outer Continental Shelf where they would place their turbines.
Dave Blazer, Bluewater's Maryland representative, welcomed word of the state's move toward developing wind power off the coast.
"There's no guarantees, but we'll put our best foot forward," he said.
Jim Lanard, managing director of Deepwater Wind, said his New Jersey-based company is excited by Maryland's move, though he wanted to study the announcement before saying whether he would compete for the right to build here. His firm has proposed wind projects off New Jersey and Rhode Island.
The decision boils down to economics, Lanard said, and the recession has driven down the costs of conventional energy from coal, oil and natural gas. With large-scale offshore wind farms likely to cost $1 billion or more, developers need either long-term contracts for selling their electricity or government incentives to attract the needed investment.
Lanard, who was attending a wind energy conference in Stockholm, Sweden, said Maryland representatives attended the event and spread the news among European wind companies of the state's interest.
He said wind projects in Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic states have the potential to attract investment from Europe and to bring jobs to the region as the turbines are manufactured and erected. To lure manufacturing jobs, though, "we need multiple developers developing multiple projects," Lanard said.
Two wind farms proposed atop mountains in Western Maryland have been approved by the state Public Service Commission but have not broken ground, Woolf said. A third project - this one with a long-term contract to supply electricity to Pepco Holdings Inc.--- is to be examined by the commission next month.
Woolf said an offshore wind farm, with stronger and steadier breezes than turbines get on mountain ridges, has the potential to supply more renewable energy than any other project in the region and could help the state fulfill a goal of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022.