Renewable energy and the Hogan conundrum

In the race to be Maryland’s governor, Democrat Ben Jealous and Republican incumbent Larry Hogan have some similarities and considerable differences, as was evident at their debate last month. But on at least one environmental issue, there’s an even more curious contrast. Mr. Jealous not only favors raising the so-called “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” the percentage of its power Maryland would be required to draw from renewable energy sources, to 50 percent (as pending legislation is expected to mandate), he would raise it to 100 percent as California recently did. “As governor, I will expand the use of renewable power and create good-paying jobs in the process,” his platform promises.

And where does Governor Hogan stand on the issue? Absolute silence. His website touts reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental initiatives, but it doesn’t mention renewable energy and especially not the Renewable Portfolio Standard. Why? It might have something to do with how two years ago, Mr. Hogan vetoed a far more modest version of the bill than the one environmental groups are pushing the state legislature to pass in 2019. In fact, Mr. Hogan initially called the 2016 bill and its 25 percent RPS goal a “$100 million energy tax” and a “sunshine tax,” in an obvious allusion to the “rain tax” rhetoric he used in the 2014 campaign to rail against a locally assessed fee on stormwater runoff.

But a funny thing happened to that sunshine tax line. After the General Assembly overrode Mr. Hogan’s veto of the bill last year and the RPS standard became law, Governor Hogan dropped his objections. Indeed, advocates say behind the scenes, some in the administration confessed they supported the RPS legislation in the first place but lost the internal policy debate. That leaves people who care about Maryland’s renewable energy future in an odd posture — either support Mr. Jealous, whose faith in the issue is clear and certain, or overlook the governor’s past rhetoric and hold faith that he will eventually embrace that higher RPS standard, too.

That second approach may sound like a considerable leap of faith, but is it? In mulling over how best to meet greenhouse gas reductions — a 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2030 — the Maryland Climate Commission, a group Mr. Hogan brags about on his campaign website, is studying the 50 percent RPS goal. In fact, a preliminary report recently presented to the commission by California-based consultant E3 suggests adopting that 50 percent RPS legislation is the best, and perhaps only, way Maryland can meet its greenhouse gas benchmark. In other words, the Hogan administration may be in the process of backing into the same environmental policy that the governor’s opponent endorses outright.

That’s good news — if a little weird. It’s worth noting that Governor Hogan’s silence means that at least he isn’t falling back on the usual Republican talking points that disparage renewable electricity as both insufficient and a drain on the economy. Meanwhile, Maryland is already moving toward renewables with both expanding solar capacity and two off-shore wind farms in the works — the latter of which are possible because of actions taken by Mr. Hogan’s appointees to the Public Service Commission. Studies suggest ratepayers may face slightly higher utility bills of perhaps $2 per household per month and the adverse impact on the economy will be negligible. Meanwhile, there would be significant job creation in the energy sector, perhaps as many as 20,000 jobs in expanded solar alone. The legislation expected to be introduced next year, the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, would also phase out the subsidies given waste-to-energy trash incinerators, which means not only less harmful carbon dioxide in the air but fewer harmful pollutants from burning waste.

Few Republican governors in this country can match Mr. Hogan’s environmental record. He’s supported the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the multi-state effort to reduce power sector carbon emissions through allowances that can be traded, and he’s fought the Trump administration U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a number of fronts including its failure to crack down on out-of-state coal-burning power plants that send their smog into Maryland. The 50 percent RPS standard would dovetail with his stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions but perhaps not with his misguided opposition of years past. Given Maryland’s vulnerability to climate change and rising sea levels — it’s 3,190 miles of coastline give it the 10th most waterfront among the 50 states — this ought to be a no-brainer.

Is the governor’s silence regarding the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act good or bad? Marylanders will have to interpret the mixed signals. Mr. Jealous has made it clear where he stands; Mr. Hogan should do so before voters go to the polls next month.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°