Wind picks up steam

Would you pay a little bit more on your monthly utility bill to help build a wind farm generating as much as 200 megawatts of electricity 12 miles or more off the coast of Maryland? That's really all Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed offshore wind bill comes down to — and yet for the past two years the General Assembly has said no.

But this year, the proposal seems to have the wind at its back, having passed the House of Delegates today and facing friendlier prospects in the Senate than in years past — thanks in no small part to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's willingness to reshuffle membership in the Finance Committee to bypass an entrenched opponent.

Most in the State House are predicting that the bill will eventually be approved and signed into law, so it's gotten scant press attention compared to controversial legislation involving guns or the death penalty in recent weeks. Governor O'Malley is deeply invested in renewable energy, and this legislation certainly would allow Maryland to be at the vanguard of East Coast states from Maine to Virginia that are attempting to nurture a U.S. offshore wind energy program.

Opponents question whether offshore wind is truly the most cost-effective green energy available and claim Maryland would be better off sticking to its goal of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 and leave it to the marketplace to figure out how to get there. But the problem with that philosophy is twofold. First, Maryland has an excessively generous definition of Tier 1 renewable energy (including such generators as hydroelectric dams and waste-to-energy incinerators about which environmentalists have, at best, mixed feelings). Second, a start-up as expensive as offshore wind requires some assistance with infrastructure cost.

That's not to suggest that Maryland ratepayers should be the ones bearing the risk associated with alternative energy, but a project like the one Mr. O'Malley envisions requires federal tax breaks and a guarantee that utilities will purchase offshore wind (what's known as a "carve-out"). Otherwise, investors won't be able to secure the private loans they'll need. Thus, it's a trade-off — pay a little more, and the continental shelf off Ocean City could be ground zero for the start of something big.

And make no mistake, it could be very big. Not only because of the clean energy such a project will generate but because, as a leader in the field, Maryland could easily become the U.S. base of the industry's supply chain. The workers who manufacture, service and provide expertise to other start-ups could be located on the Eastern Shore. And the East Coast isn't the only region looking at this — the Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest and Gulf of Mexico states are, too.

Is that wishful thinking? Well, yes. There are no certainties with the evolving clean-energy field. The offshore wind movement has hit some rough waters and delays due in no small part to the glut of U.S.-produced natural gas on the market and uncertainties over the federal tax credit that could help underwrite as much as 30 percent of offshore wind's cost.

Mr. O'Malley's vision could easily become nothing but a forgotten breeze. But if so, Maryland consumers won't be out a dime. And if it does go forward? The local ratepayer obligation is so modest (even commercial customers are capped at no more than 1.5 percent of their monthly bills) that it's really just a sweetener — but a vital one if it puts Maryland at the head of the line. That's likely why a poll showed more than two-thirds of Marylanders favor the proposal.

Wind power will probably never be the dominant source of energy in Maryland or anywhere else in this country, but it can be a vital part of the renewable portfolio. Countries like Denmark, Portugal and Spain already rely on wind to provide as much as 30 percent of their power. The only thing that's truly missing is for the U.S. to get serious on climate change with a federal policy that weans the country from its destructive dependence on fossil fuels.

President Barack Obama has pledged to do just that, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already moving forward with regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is too serious a threat for anyone to think the U.S. can continue to pursue an energy policy that ignores its ramifications. Wind power is clearly in our future. Isn't it worth $1.50 a month in incentives to be on its leading edge?

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