Energy production has emerged as arguably the primary growth engine for America's economy. Oil production is surging, and the United States will emerge as the world's leading producer sometime this decade. America has already established self-sufficiency in natural gas, with the construction of many liquefied natural gas terminals that would export gas now under consideration. Wind and solar costs are falling, and America continues to be the largest producer of the globe's most reliable carbon free energy source: nuclear power.
Maryland's economy, however, has barely participated in the national energy production boom. Predictably, the state's economy has emerged as an underperformer. In 2010, the state's gross state product expanded 2.8 percent. That slipped to 1.2 percent by 2012, and last year the state's economy failed to expand, even though the nation's did. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, that ranks Maryland 49th out of the 50 states. In late 2010, the state's unemployment rate was roughly 2 percentage points below the national average. Today, the state's unemployment rate is indistinguishable from the national average.
Maryland must invest in this transformation of our energy sector if it wants to reverse these trends. Fortunately, in certain instances, all the state needs to do is continue its support for existing sources of clean energy production. The most obvious one is the Conowingo Dam, a hydropower source that spans the border between Cecil and Harford counties, about 5 miles south of the Pennsylvania border.
The dam, an economic and environmental asset, is now in the process of being relicensed. This is a multi-year effort (during which I have served as a consultant to the dam's owner, Exelon Generation) that involves state and federal authorities and an array of stakeholders invested in the dam's ongoing operations. It represents a rare instance in which both economists and ecologists can find common ground.
The dam is Maryland's largest source of renewable electricity. It produces more clean energy than all other in-state renewable sources combined — enough to support nearly 160,000 households. The dam can even jumpstart the entire regional electricity grid during large-scale blackouts. It does all of that without producing any greenhouse gas emissions. If we were to use coal instead, Maryland would emit an additional 6.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, the equivalent of putting another 1.2 million cars on the road.
The dam — built from 1926 to 1928 — has supplied energy to local businesses and residents for more than eight decades. When completed in 1928, the Conowingo Dam produced 252 megawatts of electricity, rendering it the second largest hydroelectric project in the U.S., just behind Niagara Falls. Four turbines were subsequently added in 1964, more than doubling the dam's output.
The dam's history might hint at some old-fashioned inefficiencies, but hydropower continues to provide nearly 10 percent of our electricity in the United States. What's more, hydropower has a promising future: efficiency and longevity are being steadily improved, with significant research and development directed toward information technology systems. The fact is, the Conowingo Dam is not an aging piece of infrastructure; it is an asset capable of capturing and integrating new forms of functionality and knowledge.
Consider the dam's impact on Maryland's economy: $273 million in economic benefits to the state each year, including $10 million in state and local tax collections annually. The dam supports 265 full-time equivalent local jobs and also annually attracts 250,000 recreational visitors, who enjoy hiking, swimming, fishing, boating and bird watching in the dam's picturesque environment. Conowingo also provides prime breeding, nesting and foraging grounds for the American Bald Eagle and helps 1 million migratory and native fish travel over the dam for spawning in the Susquehanna each year. There are even additional plans to further develop recreational resources offered by the dam through the provision of new access facilities.
Perhaps most critically, the dam captures 2 million tons of sediment per year — sediment that would otherwise enter the upper Chesapeake Bay and wreak havoc on its vital ecosystems. It represents the last line of defense against harmful pollutants that would damage a national treasure.
Relicensing the dam is a no-brainer for Maryland. It fortifies our economy and protects our natural resources. Accordingly, the Conowingo Dam has proven worthy of our collective support.
Anirban Basu is Chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc. and a consultant to Exelon Generation. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.