O'Malley bill would subsidize offshore wind project

House panel approves bill aimed at boosting construction of wind turbines off Maryland's coast, similar to these in the Baltic Sea off Germany. (Joern Pollex / February 15, 2013)

Legislation to subsidize an offshore wind energy project off Ocean City moved ahead Friday, as the House Economic Matters Committee approved the measure, a priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley and many environmental activists.

The committee voted 14-7 to send HB226 to the House floor with two minor amendments and little debate. While expected to sail through the House, a bigger test awaits it in the Senate.

The governor's bill would require the state's electricity providers to purchase a certain amount of power from an offshore wind project. The average household would pay no more than $1.50 a month extra for the project, according to the bill.

Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, questioned the wisdom of "carving out" a special requirement for offshore wind power in the state's current renewable energy law, which already mandates that electricity providers get up to 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022.

Del. Steven R. Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican, quizzed administration officials over the projected costs to ratepayers of the project, and questioned whether the non-monetary benefits of developing offshore wind overcame the expense.  According to the Department of Legislative Services, the net ratepayer subsidy for the project is projected to be nearly $96 million in the first year turbines would start operating 10 to 30 miles off Ocean City.

But Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, brushed aside such concerns, saying he didn't the project would ever get off the ground and calling it "feel-good" legislation.

Critics have suggested offshore wind has little to no chance of being developed because the $1 billion-plus costs of constructing dozens of turbines in the ocean is so much more expensive than building a comparable conventional power plant fueld by natural gas, even though the wind would provide essentially a free fuel once the project is built.  But some offshore wind developers contend the first turbines may begin construction off the Atlantic coast this year, and that a Maryland package of incentives would help draw developers here.

Environment Maryland, one of several green groups pushing for offshore wind, hailed the committee vote, calling offshore wind "a critical part of Maryland’s clean energy future, since it is our single largest source of truly clean, renewable energy." 

One change made by the House panel would add two more members to a board that would advise the Maryland Energy Administration how to spend a $10 million fund dedicated to providing financial assistance and training so small and minority-owned businesses could participate in the development of offshore wind energy facilities in the state.  The other would call for a study of creating a degree program in clean energy at one of the state's historically black colleges.

The House passed a similar offshore wind bill put in by the governor last year, but the measure failed to make it out of the Senate Finance Committee.  Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an offshore wind supporter, has tweaked the panel membership to improve its chances of approval this year.  The committee heard the governor's bill this week.  Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who chairs the panel, said he expected to bring it up for a vote in the next week or so.