O'Malley to push clean energy bills

January 12, 2010|By Annie Linskey | Baltimore Sun reporter

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O'Malley will push legislators to pass a package of renewable energy initiatives that would boost solar production, make the state more attractive for offshore wind development and offer incentives for purchasing electric cars.

The proposals, which O'Malley detailed in an interview Tuesday on the eve of the General Assembly's 90-day legislative session, are designed to put Maryland on course to generate 20 percent of its electricity via renewable sources in about a decade. That was a goal the legislature set two years ago, and comes as President Barack Obama is set to promote green jobs at an appearance in Lanham today.

"The only way to hit our renewable energy goals by 2022 is with a sizable amount offshore wind," O'Malley said. Currently, 4.5 percent of the energy generated in the state comes from renewable sources.

The governor said he's shelved plans to re-regulate the state's energy market, putting to rest an issue that he has toyed with in recent months.

O'Malley discussed the plans while the State House buzzed with activity -- literally -- as contractors completed last-minute maintenance before the session starts today.

The governor only gave the broad outlines of his renewable energy package, which mostly tweaks existing regulations and therefore comes with a modest price tag. Low cost is key this year of cutbacks in spending, with O'Malley planning to unveil a lean budget next week.

"We'll put in a budget that will make nobody happy," O'Malley said, sitting in his office and putting a hand to his forehead. "It will be pretty painful."

About $2 billion must be cut from the spending plan approved for this year, and local government officials fear that their share of state aid will take a pummeling in this round.

O'Malley said Monday that he's "made a conscious decision" not to touch the disparity grant -- a fee the wealthy counties transfer to the state's poorest jurisdictions, but did not rule out legislators acting otherwise.

"I suppose the legislature could decide they want to make cuts there," O'Malley said.

Also, he said he "doesn't see where it would make sense" to have the state reduce the share of the income taxes that the it gives back to the counties. Already, the motor vehicle funds counties need for road repairs has already been cut deeply , he said.

The governor also touted his jobs plan, saying a proposed $3,000 tax credit for companies that hire unemployed workers will help firms "on the cusp" of hiring again. And construction jobs will be created, he said, if the General Assembly passes an expansion to the Historic Tax Credit he proposed last week.

O'Malley showed the most enthusiasm Tuesday for his energy legislation, which will formally be rolled out Friday. Much of the groundwork for the bills was laid out in a Maryland Energy Outlook report that the state's energy administration released last week.

To attract a developer for an offshore wind farm, the governor wants to update the state's coastal zoning rules. Such changes would ease the way for underground transmission lines to connect ocean-based wind production to the state's grid. Also, modifications are needed to run a line under an eroding beach.

"We are trying to get our ducks in a row," said Malcolm Woolf, the Director of the Maryland Energy Administration. "Let's get our rules in place ... so we don't have litigation for years," he said.

The O'Malley administration is already asking prospective developers for information about their needs and studying wind strengths and ocean depths to provide data to potential builders.

Seven other states, Woolf said, are vying to host the first large-scale wind farm in the country. "We have the best wind in the country," he promised.

Given this year's fiscal squeeze, Woolf said the administration opted not to require Maryland energy producers to generate a set amount of wind power. "We didn't want to take a risk and mandate an unknown cost," he said.

The governor also wants to set a more aggressive schedule for increasing the state's solar power output. Energy providers will have to pay penalties sooner if they don't increase their share of solar production. Woolf said the state is late on setting solar targets, but said a new facility will be opening soon.

"We are on the cusp of a transformation," he said. "We are exploding."

Finally Woolf said the governor will give residents a break on the motor vehicle excise tax -- up to $2,000 -- on new purchases of electric cars. The tax break would last for three years and would be similar to a program launched when hybrid cars were first brought to the market, he said. The cost is estimated at $270,000 in 2011 he said.

No electric cars are readily available on the market currently, but Chrysler and Nissan are both introducing models that would qualify for the credit, he said.

Del. Derrick Davis, a Prince George's County democrat who chairs the House Committee on Economic Matters said he supportive of the governor's ideas, but hasn't been briefed on the legislation.

"The devil is in the details," he said. "We are at the very beginning."

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