Much of the attention paid to Gov.Martin O'Malley's second offshore wind proposal has centered around the cost of building and maintaining an offshore wind farm and its effect on ratepayers. That is a very important discussion, and the governor has his work cut out for him convincing Marylanders that his plan won't unduly increase their monthly electric bills. But it is only part of the story. Inaction on the plan would mean failure to follow through on the state's goal to meet 20 percent of electricity demand with renewable sources by 2022. The offshore wind proposal should be viewed within the context of Maryland's long-term energy growth plan.

Maryland's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) was codified into law in 2004. We are one of 24 states (and the District of Columbia) to establish an RPS, and by most metrics we are not doing well. In a recent report that I co-authored with Professor Robert Nelson and eight other graduate students at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, we found that Maryland is likely to fall short of its goal by a large margin.


In 2010, Maryland utilities were required to purchase 1,930 gigawatt-hours of electricity from renewable sources. The actual amount of renewable power purchased has been closer to 470 gigawatt-hours. To make up that large shortfall and start meeting the benchmarks set in the RPS, the amount of renewable energy purchased in Maryland will have to increase by 32 percent per year.

Unfortunately, that is not happening, and by 2016 all low-cost, non-solar resources that qualify under the RPS will be exhausted. By 2022, the total requirements for renewable energy generation in Maryland and its neighbors will be five times the current installed capacity. In order to meet these standards, new sources of generation have to come online soon.

So, what are our options? If fully developed, on-land wind power could supply between 600 and 1,000 megawatts of power to Maryland by 2022, or 14 percent to 23 percent of our renewable energy needs. But because history shows that densely populated communities do not like looking at or listening to large, spinning turbines every day, these resources are unlikely to be fully developed. There is currently one 70 megawatt wind farm operating in Garrett County; another proposed wind farm has been delayed indefinitely by legal challenges.

Solar power was given special preference in the RPS, with a 2 percent carve-out of the 20 percent goal. But Maryland is not a sun-rich state like Arizona, and even with an ambitious 2 percent goal, we are on track to fall short by 50 percent in 2022.

Finally, there is biomass energy (imagine industrial drainage pipes leading straight to a power plant). While desirable because this displaces fossil fuels and recycles natural waste products, biomass is not a "clean" form of energy. These processes generate more hazardous air pollutants than coal or natural gas in some cases, and can produce "black carbon," which is the second-largest contributor to global warming.

That brings us back to offshore wind. We will not come close to our RPS goals without it, and that is why the governor has proposed this plan for two years in a row. The 450 megawatt proposed project alone would supply 13 percent of the total amount of renewable electricity needed by 2022, and that is only a fraction of the 11,300 megawatts of power available in the mostly shallow Atlantic waters 28 to 43 miles off the Maryland coast. And due to their distance from shore, nobody but the most optically blessed Marylanders would be bothered by their presence.

Meeting the RPS targets means cleaner air, less reliance on fossil energy, construction job growth — and, yes, more expensive electricity. Opponents will emphasize the increased cost to ratepayers, but as we move toward 2022, we need to understand that electricity is going to get more expensive. Even with the large new reserves of natural gas that are driving down U.S. energy prices, the majority of Maryland's electricity comes from coal, a fuel whose cost is likely to increase over time. Diversifying our energy portfolio now is a good way to hedge our risk against this future volatility.

Offshore wind is crucial to Maryland hitting its RPS goals. We should bear that in mind and consider the benefits when watching this debate unfold.

James S. McGarry received his master's degree in environmental policy from the University of Maryland. He is an energy consultant and writer in Baltimore. His email is jamessmcgarry@yahoo.com.