Study sees wind energy bounty off MD's coast

As Gov. Martin O'Malley introduces a new bill aimed at boosting offshore wind energy development in Maryland, comes a new study saying there's abundant potential for meeting the state's electricity needs in the Atlantic off Ocean City.

In an article accepted for publication in the journal Renewable Energy, researchers with the University of Delaware's Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration figure that the winds off Maryland's coast are steady and strong enough - and the continental shelf wide enough - to install potentially 7,800 huge turbines that could generate up to 189 percent of the state's current electricity consumption. 

That's after about a third of the potential turbine sites are excluded to stay well clear of shipping lanes.  Also after barring any windmills closer than eight nautical miles to the shore, so that from the sandy resort beaches they'd be but tiny whirligigs on the horizon.

Using that much coastal shelf would call for developing some new turbines capable of operating in deeper waters. But even if limited to putting turbines in shallower waters using technology now in use in Europe, the study estimates there's still room for 2,900 5-megawatt windmills, which it figures could generate up to 70 percent of the state's current power needs.

(The study does take account of the variability of wind, figuring that the turbines are able to produce electricity at a little over a third of their rated capacity.)

That potential is siginficant, as the O'Malley administration is counting on offshore wind to meet the state's legal requirement to get 20 percent of Maryland's electricity from renewable sources by 2022.  Offshore wind is projected to provide roughly a third of that, according to the Maryland Energy Administration.

Of course, more of the Atlantic could be excluded for environmental or other reasons. And this study doesn't say anything about what it would cost to generate or distribute electrictiy from offshore.  A relatively modest array of 40-80 massive turbines with 200-400 megawatts' generating capacity could cost $1 billion or more to construct.

The economic feasibility is offshore wind's biggest challenge, and one that O'Malley hopes he's figured out with his latest proposal for providing economic incentives to developers.  It'll be up to the General Assembly to decide, which balked at the governor's previous legislation.  For more on the new bill, see the story in today's Baltimore Sun here.

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