O'Malley to press for legislation on renewable energy

Governor wants bills on incentives for electric cars, solar and wind power

  • On the first day of the Maryland legislative session, House Speaker Michael Busch, left, administers the oath of office to Del. Charles Jenkins, right, of District 3B in Frederick County.
On the first day of the Maryland legislative session, House… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
January 13, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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 of offshore wind," O'Malley said. Currently, 4.5 percent of the energy generated in the state comes from renewable sources.

The governor said he has 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 gave only 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 to 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 wealthier 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 it gives back to the counties. Already, the motor vehicle funds that counties need for road repairs have been cut deeply, he said.

The governor also promoted 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, 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 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 be host to the first large-scale wind farm in the country. "We have the best wind in the country," he said.

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 acknowledged the state's energy producers are late on meeting current 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 to the state is estimated at $270,000 in 2011, he said.

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

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

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

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