Most of us don't think much about the energy we use every day. We flip the switch and the lights come on — like magic.
But the energy we rely on has to be generated by something. And how we generate that energy has a direct bearing on health, environmental and economic conditions in Baltimore and across Maryland.
Dirty energy generated by plants burning coal and oil causes harmful air pollution, contaminates our water and makes us sick. Coal power plants emit dangerous levels of mercury, sulfur dioxide and arsenic, which are linked to heart disease, lung disease and premature death.
Already, 85 percent of Maryland residents live in areas where their air is unsafe to breathe, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to a 2013 study released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Baltimore had the highest rate of emissions-related deaths among large cities — higher than New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Air pollution also damages the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, as a third of the nitrogen emitted into the air ends up in the water, hurting aquatic life and recreation.
Dirty energy is also contributing to our weather becoming stranger and more dangerous. The evidence is accumulating, as 2014 was the hottest year on record globally, and 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have been since 2000. Half of the largest snowstorms on record in the region have occurred since 2003.
We should all be alarmed by a dramatic increase in flooding, as documented in a recent report by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Baltimore had an average of 1.3 floods that were disruptive to residents and businesses per year between 1957 and 1963, while Annapolis had 3.8 annually. The report showed that from 2007 to 2013, Baltimore had on average 13.1 flood days per year, while Annapolis had more than 39 such days, doing damage to residents and businesses.
Who gets hurt the most by these events? Low-income and elderly populations are most vulnerable, as we witnessed after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Today, about 52 percent of Maryland's energy comes from burning fossil fuels, with 44 percent coming from dirty, polluting coal. About 40 percent comes from nuclear power, while 8 percent comes from safe, renewable sources including solar and wind. It's time to clean up our air and water by expanding our use of these sustainable sources.
In 2013, the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability, the Baltimore Planning Commission, the mayor and City Council adopted a Climate Action Plan for Baltimore, in which they encouraged the state to increase Maryland's reliance on clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
Important legislation is now pending in the Maryland General Assembly that would establish new goals for renewable energy. The legislation would increase our Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), or the percentage of Maryland's energy that comes from renewable sources, from the current standard of 20 percent by 2022 to 25 percent by 2020, and would encourage further increases by 2025.
Increasing our reliance on renewable energy can generate important economic benefits for Baltimore and Maryland. According to an analysis of federal data done by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, significantly increasing the use of renewable energy in Maryland over time will prevent 200 to 450 deaths per year while saving more than $2 billion annually in health costs.
Increasing Maryland's investments in clean, renewable energy also will create more jobs. Today, there are more than 109,000 clean-energy jobs that generate more than $8.2 billion in associated salaries and wages in Maryland annually, according to the Maryland Clean Energy Center. And a recent study by the Solar Foundation found that solar jobs alone exceed coal industry jobs nationwide.
The concept of expanding clean energy in Maryland has received bipartisan support, with both Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Gov. Martin O'Malley backing clean-energy standards and the economic, health and environmental benefits they generate.
We've made progress but it's time to do more. Let's work as a state to significantly increase our use of clean, renewable energy.
The General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan should embrace the pending RPS legislation, which represents an important step toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.
Passage will help Maryland become a healthier state. And it will help Baltimore City meet its climate goals, increase jobs available to city workers and protect the safety and well-being of its residents.
Lynn Heller is a member of the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability. Her email is email@example.com.