Md., universities to buy electricity from renewable sources

State offices, campuses to buy 23% of power from wind, solar facilities

December 09, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Baltimore Sun reporter

In a major push for renewable energy in Maryland, the O'Malley administration is planning to buy nearly a quarter of the power needed by state offices and the state's university campuses from four new wind and solar farms, including one of the nation's largest photovoltaic facilities, to be built in Frederick County by Constellation Energy Group Inc.

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Tuesday that the state government and University System of Maryland have agreed jointly to 20-year contracts to buy electricity as the projects are built over the next four years. Some of the power could be available as early as next year, and the four facilities eventually could provide 23 percent of the power used by the state and its colleges and universities.

In a statement, O'Malley declared Maryland "a leader in clean energy" and said the deals would "bring more green jobs to our communities, use public resources more efficiently, and lead by example for other states."

The state and the university system, which together spend $165 million a year on electricity, are using their buying power "to jump-start commercial-scale development of renewables for the first time in Maryland," said Malcolm Woolf, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

There are only about 3 megawatts' worth of wind and solar generating facilities in the state, he said, and the state by law is committed to expanding renewables' share to 20 percent of all electricity used in Maryland by 2022.

Maryland is taking a novel approach, Woolf said. Though a number of states and municipalities buy electricity from wind or solar plants - and some are committed to go 100 percent renewable - he said it is unusual for a government to agree to buy power from projects that have not been built yet.

Wind and solar developers generally need such long-term power purchasing agreements to obtain financing, he said.

"By offering long-term contracts for renewables that could be on the grid over the next several years, we're able to help make these projects a reality without any upfront cost by the state," Woolf said.

But a leading Republican state lawmaker, Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County, questioned whether the state should be signing long-term deals for potentially more expensive renewable power in the midst of a budget crisis.

"If we were flush in money, then I could see maybe - and even then I'm not sure - spending more for energy in order to encourage renewable uses," Kittleman said. "But it seems to me, in dealing with an economy that's very depressed and looking to pay this 20 years out, that may not be best use of taxpayers' money."

Gaining state business are a 55-megawatt wind facility near Keyser, W.Va., planned by US Windforce of Greensburg, Pa.; a more than 200-megawatt wind project planned off the Delaware coast by Bluewater Wind; a 17.1-megawatt solar farm proposed by Constellation at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg; and some of the 50-megawatt capacity of a wind farm near Oakland in Garrett County that has already been approved. That project is being developed by Synergics of Annapolis.

Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland, called the announcement "great news."

"This will have big long-term benefits for stabilizing costs and reducing pollution," Heavner wrote in an e-mail.

Kittleman, though, said he believes the state should not be promoting clean energy if it costs more than coal- or nuclear-generated electricity.

"The government is putting a priority into concern about climate change," he said, "rather than making sure they spend the taxpayers' money wisely. And I struggle with that."

Woolf would not say what price or prices the state has agreed to pay on behalf of taxpayers. Terms of the deals remain confidential until the contracts are signed, he said. Generally speaking, the prices agreed to are slightly higher than electricity costs today, he said, but would not necessarily be so in the years ahead if energy prices resume growing at 2 percent to 4 percent annually once the economy recovers.

"We think these are in line with what we think we were going to have to spend anyway," the energy director said, adding that the state could save money if electricity costs climb faster than is expected.

"If nothing else, it is a hedge to diversify our fuel mix for the state," Woolf said.

The deals were selected in a competition that the state staged, seeking long-term contracts to buy renewable power from projects that could be built by 2014, Woolf said.

Two of the projects are out of state, and the Synergics wind farm has arranged to sell most of its electricity to the utility Delmarva Power.

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