Maryland isn't going to have two-thirds of its electrical energy needs supplied by wind anytime soon, but it's useful to know that the potential is there. As a study released this week by the Abell Foundation demonstrates, the state's capacity for offshore wind-powered energy is both vast and untapped.
What the report, prepared by the University of Delaware's Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, demonstrates is that existing technology is available to produce a huge amount of electricity 24 to 48 miles off the Atlantic Coast from Ocean City. Maryland has already pledged to use renewable energy to meet about one-quarter of its power needs in 12 years. Offshore wind could do the job.
There are numerous challenges involved. It's not clear what impact thousands of turbines could have on local marine ecology. Shipping lanes would have to be protected. Transmission lines (so often opposed by communities in a right-of-way) would have to be built. Wind power would have to be balanced with other sources of electricity to supply the grid when the weather proves too tranquil for turbines.
But the point is that the state lacks neither the wind nor the technology to make it happen. Denmark set a similar course a decade ago, and today the wind supplies one-fifth of that country's energy needs. Delaware's planned Bluewater Wind project could have more than 70 turbines producing electricity in several years.
What Maryland must avoid, however, is the kind of NIMBY battle that has paralyzed the similar Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound for the past decade. There are few, if any, locations on the East Coast where birds would not be harmed by turbine blades. And while it's appropriate to respect Native American traditions and artifacts, should such concerns drive the nation's energy policy future?
The biggest hurdle for Maryland wind, however, is surely going to be the same challenge that all renewable energy sources face: the willingness of the state and the nation to commit to it. Public financing and tax incentives must be available. Most important, carbon emissions must be addressed either through a system of cap-and-trade, as President Barack Obama has proposed, or through a direct tax on greenhouse gases.
Until other forms of energy production are charged for the pollution they create and the contribution they make toward climate change, renewable forms of power will be seen as impractical. Our global competitors aren't likely to make that mistake. China is already making substantial investments in renewable power.
The sooner Maryland can take the wind power plunge, the better. Denmark's early commitment to wind power has allowed the country to be a global leader in the field -- with thousands of jobs in designing, engineering and supplying the technology to others. Maryland could be in the same position within the U.S., but only if the general public is willing to support this unique opportunity.
Admittedly, that is likely to mean consumers will have to pay more for cleaner forms of energy in the short term. But in the long run, the savings are bound to be substantial -- not just in dollars but in jobs, a cleaner environment, energy independence and future economic growth.
Substantial investment will be needed to set this type of project in motion. Do we have the money?
Also, development of wind energy on a massive scale has to be a private-public partnership with mere politicians turning into visionaries and everyone coming to the consensus that global warming is not a myth simply because the University of East Anglia scientists were not on the up and up about their research data.
Cap and trade, taxing greenhouse gas production -- these are great ideas on paper. But where have you been lately? China may be developing green technology in the hope of making a killing on the global market by selling it to eager buyers, but in Copenhagen it acted more as an obstructionist, demanding that for it to decrease its greenhouse emissions the West would have to pay the bill.
We have an ambivalent polity and a skeptical citizenry, we have an entrenched energy sector that will lobby for its right to pollute, and in the face of these realities, hope does not spring eternal for wind power to sweep Maryland in the near future.