How to achieve energy goals without offshore wind Maryland's energy answers aren't blowing in the wind

April 17, 2011|By Jay Hancock

Three years ago, Baltimore finished replacing traditional traffic signals with light-emitting diodes, cutting energy use by more than three-fourths.

The newfangled signals don't look much different. Sometimes the green looks a little blue. But they're saving the city $1 million a year.

Now city officials are moving to give streetlights the same treatment — swapping conventional bulbs for LEDs — for much bigger savings. Baltimore is also reducing its BGE bill by generating electricity with sewage methane — enough to power 3,000 houses. (The electricity is for the city, but that gives you a sense of the scale.)

And officials are talking about installing small, natural gas-fired generation plants throughout the city to further cut power costs and pollution.

Those are just a few of the ways Maryland can meet its energy and environmental goals without building windmills in the ocean.

Anybody who opposes Gov. Martin O'Malley's expensive proposal to develop a wind farm off the Eastern Shore, put aside for further study a few days ago by the General Assembly, has an obligation to come up with effective, less-risky alternatives. Baltimore is demonstrating several, and there are many, many others.

Cutting Maryland's carbon emissions and powering its future economy will be a matter of a hundred separate changes — in both conservation and new electricity sources.

They aren't as sexy as a poster project with a governor cutting a ribbon. But they'll be much less expensive and ultimately much more significant.

First, a little perspective. On a hot summer day, Maryland burns 14,000 megawatts of electricity, much of it from polluting, carbon dioxide-intensive coal plants. Reducing the state's contribution to global warming requires cutting that diet — burning less than 14,000 megawatts, or at least restraining future growth — and replacing dirty megawatts with clean ones.

The offshore wind project would provide about 300 megawatts of usable capacity, or more than 2 percent of the state's needs, while emitting zero carbon dioxide and costing about $1.5 billion. Alternatives must be measured against those standards.

The cleanest, cheapest kilowatt, energy pros like to say, is the one you don't use. That's why conservation is key and why Baltimore's efforts, backed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, show where other municipalities and households can go.

Light-emitting diodes might not seem cheap. Replacing Baltimore's traffic signals cost $6 million, and replacing streetlights and lights in city parking garages will cost a lot more. But LEDs slash electricity consumption so dramatically that they pay for themselves within a few years — unlike offshore wind projects that need to be amortized over a couple of decades.

LEDs last a lot longer than conventional bulbs, too, which lowers maintenance costs. Going LED would make sense for Baltimore even if global warming weren't a concern.

"We don't need to argue about whether or not there's climate change," says Theodore Atwood, director of the city's Department of General Services. "Let's just invest our money based on what's economical in energy efficiency and see what's there."

The LED revolution is spreading across Maryland. Many retailers have already installed LEDs, which are even more efficient than fluorescent bulbs. Homeowners are beginning to use them, too. The six LED bulbs on my front porch cost $6 each, and the one over my sink was $40. But eventually they'll plunge in price, enabling substantial conservation.

"The LED today is like the pocket calculator" in the 1970s, says energy economist Robert McCullough. That is to say, it's going to get a lot cheaper and more sophisticated.

Replacing all Maryland's lights with LEDs (an ambitious goal, for sure) might save 2,000 megawatts of capacity — six times the size of the proposed offshore wind development. (Lights consume about a fifth of all electricity.)

Baltimore Gas & Electric's "Peak Rewards" program, which pays people for having their air conditioners or electric water heaters briefly switched off on hot days, has cut 500 peak megawatts from Maryland's energy diet so far for much less cost per megawatt than offshore wind. And fewer than half of BGE's customers with air conditioners have signed up, says Mark Case, the utility's senior vice president for strategy and regulation.

Once kinks (there will be kinks) are worked out of BGE's and Pepco's computerized "smart" meters, to be installed in the next few years, the megawatt savings should be much greater. Smart meters will let households manage their energy use.

To be sure, O'Malley is pushing conservation vigorously, and some are heeding the call. Baltimore's government will have cut energy use 20 percent by 2015, Atwood says, a reduction that would surpass O'Malley's statewide "EmPower Maryland" goal of slimming back 15 percent.

But numerous conservation opportunities remain.

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