While lawmakers leery of irate constituents have pressed the administration to limit the impact on Marylanders' electricity bills, others warn of another risk: discouraging development.

"You definitely need significant state incentives," said Firestone. "If the incentives are too small, at this point, offshore wind won't be built."

One of the companies interested in building off Maryland's coast has urged O'Malley to increase the size of his incentive package. Larger projects of 300 megawatts or more actually begin to see "economies of scale," wrote Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski, allowing the cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced to go down.

Hopper acknowledged the pressure, but said the administration is "comfortable" with the smaller incentive package the House passed last year.

Senate support for offshore wind has yet to be tested, because O'Malley's bill never got out of the Finance Committee. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat in charge of that panel, said he believes it will send the legislation to the floor this time because one of the bill's opponents last year has been shifted to another committee.

Middleton also said he had urged the governor to stick to the proposal that the House passed. Last year, O'Malley sought a higher subsidy of up to $2 a month for a larger project, but delegates reduced the scope.

Even if Maryland lawmakers approve an offshore wind bill this year, the state is unlikely to claim bragging rights to the nation's first offshore wind farm. The earliest that turbines might begin spinning off Ocean City would probably be 2017, while other projects hoping to start within the year — the 130-turbine Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, a five-turbine venture in Rhode Island and a six-turbine pilot off Atlantic City in New Jersey — would be finished before that.

How many other projects are built in the next several years, including off Maryland's coast, may depend on whether Congress renews the federal investment tax credit. It helps make offshore wind projects more feasible to finance by letting developers take a tax credit against 30 percent of a project's costs.

Time and time again over nearly two decades, the credit has nearly expired, only to be renewed for another year or two. That has left developers wondering whether the credit would still be there when their project was ready.

"The industry is turned off by the uncertainty of that market benefit, and is not willing to make strong investments … with such short-term commitments," said Walt Musial, an engineer who specializes in offshore wind for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Wind energy supporters in the U.S. Senate, including Maryland's two senators, have co-sponsored a more predictable tax break, which they hope might get wrapped into any tax reform efforts in Congress this year, said Jim Lanard, executive director of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition.

Even with federal help, large-scale offshore wind farms face a daunting challenge from the recent boom in U.S. production of natural gas and oil from shale deposits. Prices for natural gas in particular have plummeted, making it far less costly to build a land-based power plant that relies on gas to power its turbines than one in the ocean.

"Is this going to lead to a wind farm? At today's prices, probably not," climate activist Tidwell said of the Maryland bill. But he predicted the prospects would improve over the next several years through government actions and changes in energy markets.

"You can't get there without a start," Tidwell concluded. "This is a good start."


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