Change in the wind

Our view: Offshore wind energy has its challenges, but project should be allowed to move forward

March 21, 2011

Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to promote offshore wind power in Maryland got a skeptical reception from a state senate committee this week, and that's understandable. There are an array of issues to give anyone pause, particularly the project's potential cost.

But on balance, the wind farm envisioned by the legislation would represent too great a benefit to the residents of this state to be ignored. And the $1.5 billion price tag is largely a matter of perspective: The benefits are most evident in future years as global energy prices and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions becomes all the more urgent.

In 2004, the General Assembly wisely made a commitment to renewable energy. By 2022, Maryland-based power companies are expected to buy 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

But so far, there's not been much investment in such facilities in Maryland, and that's a problem. The governor's proposal would require the Public Service Commission to order local electric companies to enter long-term power purchase agreements from a qualified offshore wind generator.

A surcharge on ratepayers' accounts would cover the additional cost of wind power over the next two decades or more. Estimates are that for average residential customers, this may add anywhere from 92 cents to $3 per month on their bills.

With the guarantee of two decades of power purchases, it's likely a private company would develop the envisioned 600 megawatt wind farm, capable of supplying 3 percent of the state's overall power needs or enough to serve 79 percent of all the homes on the Eastern Shore, a huge boost toward the state's 2022 goal.

Critics of the proposal have pointed out that one of the possible developers employs Michael R. Enright, Mr. O'Malley's former chief of staff. But while it is unfortunate that someone so close to the administration is involved in such a high-profile, government-supported project so soon after leaving office, the decision on what company might get the job (and there are at least a half-dozen potential bidders) rests solely with federal authorities, not the governor or the state legislature.

Could Maryland get stuck with a power generating albatross? That seems unlikely given that similar projects (with similar power purchase agreements) are happening elsewhere, too. The cost in Maryland could be no higher than the costs in Delaware or Massachusetts under the state's plan.

Meanwhile, a legislative analysis shows that the burden to consumers dwindles over time as fossil fuel prices rise faster than the cost to operate the offshore windmills. Wind power may be relatively expensive today, but two decades from now, consumers may be happy to be locked into those purchase agreements.

Of course, Maryland could sit back and let the market to choose the most cost-effective renewable energy source. But unfortunately, the current law rewards companies for investing in generators such as waste-to-energy facilities that are of marginal help to the environment.

As a University of Maryland study pointed out last fall, offshore wind power is feasible in Maryland, but it will require an uncommon amount of public and private collaboration. The governor's legislation is a needed first step down that road.

Certainly, the technology has been proven in Europe and elsewhere. That the project would create some 2,000 jobs should be of interest to lawmakers as well in these difficult economic times. Meanwhile, renewed concerns about safety in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have cast the future of a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs further in doubt.

Lawmakers may be reluctant to approve anything that causes consumer prices to increase, no matter how marginally. But doing nothing could prove far more costly, particularly for a coastal state that is vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change, a fact that should weigh more heavily on legislators' minds than a 92-cent surcharge.

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