Marylanders favor offshore wind, poll says

As Gov. Martin O'Malley prepares to renew his push to build industrial wind turbines off Maryland's coast, a new poll shows strong public support even if the outlook for offshore wind development has grown cloudier lately.

The mid-December survey done by OpinionWorks of Annapolis on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups finds that nearly two-thirds of voters statewide favor developing offshore wind power even if it would raise their utility bills by $2 a month. That echoes the finding of an earlier poll in September, in which 62 percent of those asked supported offshore wind.

In the new survey of 1,405 registered voters, participants were asked why they supported developing offshore wind. They pointed most often to predictions that the projects could create thousands of jobs and to positive impacts on air quality, compared with the pollution emitted by coal-burning power plants. One-third of those polled listed jobs as the most important factor, while more than one-fourth cited health impacts.

Jen Brock-Cancellieri, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said green groups commissioned the new poll to counter lawmakers' reluctance to subsidize offshore wind development if it would raise ratepayers' utility bills.

"We felt that there was a perceived concern among voters, rather than an actual concern," she said. "So we wanted to rely on science and did this poll."

O'Malley introduced a bill last year that would have required utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy power from offshore turbines. To allay fears that the projects, which could easily cost $2 billion or more, would drive up residents' power bills, he proposed limiting the increase to $2 a month. But legislative leaders tabled the matter for further study.

Besides a statewide canvass, the new poll surveyed voters in the districts of four Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee who had balked at voting for the governor's bill. Support ranged from 63 percent in Baltimore County to 72 percent in the lower Eastern Shore district that includes Ocean City, where the turbines would be faintly visible from the beach if built as planned 11 or more miles offshore.

Since then, the outlook for offshore wind development has grown cloudier. A company proposing to build turbines off the coast of Delaware dropped its plan, and Congress has failed so far to extend tax breaks for development of various kinds of renewable power projects, including offshore wind.

O'Malley plans to keep pushing, though with a different approach. Instead of trying to make utilities sign long-term contracts, the administration is expected to propose a more flexible requirement that utilities get a certain percentage of their power from offshore turbines, much as they are now with solar energy projects. Utilities would either finance projects themselves or buy "credits" representing specific amounts of electricity generated by others' turbines built off the coast of Maryland or some other state. The new bill would be modeled on a law passed in New Jersey.

State Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said he believes the new approach stands a better chance of getting his panel's approval, though he believes developers might have to do more work this way to secure the needed financing.

Environmentalists hope the poll will help tip lawmakers in favor of action this year. They plan to hold an offshore wind rally Wednesday morning in front of the State House as the 90-day General Assembly session begins. Supporters have argued that a project could generate up to 2,400 construction and manufacturing jobs.

"Maryland has a choice," Brock-Cancellieri said. "Do we want to become a regional hub for manufacturing jobs, or do we want to get left behind?"