O'Malley's offshore wind bill gets fast start

A confident Gov. Martin O'Malley kicked off Tuesday his latest effort to promote offshore wind energy in Maryland, telling a supportive State House crowd that enough senators had signed onto his bill this time to get it through the chamber that's thwarted him the past two years.

O'Malley said he had 24 senators as cosponsors, a bare majority but twice the number backing last year's effort. What's more, the governor said, six of his cosponsors are members of the Finance Committee, enough to break the logjam there that has stifled his legislation.

"The time to act is now," he declared, saying Maryland must do what it can to to promote renewable energy in response to climate change.  He noted that the state, with all its shoreline, is especially vulnerable to rising sea level, a major byproduct of global warming.

The bill the governor is introducing is virtually the same as the scaled-down measure passed last year by the House.  It would use a system of "offshore renewable energy credits" to help finance the construction of massive wind turbines a dozen or so miles off Ocean City.  The bill would provide a subsidy from the state's electric ratepayers to build up to 200 megawatts' worth of power generation, provided that the average Maryland household would pay no more than $1.50 a month on its electric bill for the project.

O'Malley acknowledged that ratepayers would have to pay, but stressed the economic benefits of the measure, repeatilng projections of up to 850 construction jobs and 150 to 200 full-time jobs to maintain the turbines.  State officials have projected almost $1.3 billion in economic benefits if an offshore project gets built.

With a number of urban lawmakers skittish about voting for any measure that will raise power bills for the poor, the administration did sweeten the minority-business carrots in last year's bill. It provides that minority investors will get a chance to buy into any offshore wind project, explained Abigail Hopper, the governor's energy adviser.  The legislation also includes $10 million in funding to assist small and minority-owned firms seeking to participate in the project's subsitantial supply chain.

O'Malley acknowledged that even if his bill passes, it may be years, if ever, before turbines go up off Ocean City.  His measure offers a "narrow strike zone" that wind developers may well be unable to hit, he said. He suggested that Maryland may need to partner with neighboring Delaware or with the federal government to provide enough incentives for a project to be launched in the mid-Atlantic.

Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who wias among the General Assembly's earliest advocates for offshore wind, noted that President Obama vowed in his inauguration speech this week to try to break the political deadlock in Washington over national action to fight climate change.  Hucker said even if it's uncertain that Maryland's legislation will yield results, the state "has a historic opportunity to affect this debate."

Polls indicate a large majority of Marylanders favor offshore wind and would even be willing to pay a little extra for electricity generated by turbines.  But some lawmakers remain skeptical of asking ratepayers to subsidize such an expensive, as-yet unproven undertaking, with an offshore wind project costing $1-2 billion.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore city Democrat and head of the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said that while she supports offshore wind in concept, she's reluctant to ask ratepayers to pay more for a project which she doubts will do that much for Marylanders.

"Many people don't like to pay for something they're not going to benefit from, and they're not going to receive," she said.