Speaker backs renewable-energy measure

House Speaker Michael E. Busch has put his name on a bill that would require utilities to gradually increase their use of renewable energy sources such as wind and the sun - a measure that faces opposition from some of Maryland's largest businesses.

The measure is a top priority of some environmental groups, which argue that it will result in cleaner air and less dependence on imported fuel.

Busch, whose bill has attracted about 30 co-sponsors, said it would become one of the top priorities of the Democratic leadership of the House. The Annapolis lawmaker said the legislation would promote the growth of a wind-power industry in Western Maryland and encourage the use of clean energy.

The legislation would require electricity suppliers to gradually increase their use of renewable energy sources from a starting level of 3.5 percent in 2006 to 7.5 percent by 2014. Renewable sources include solar and wind power, geothermal energy and crops grown to be burned as fuel.

Similar legislation was defeated last year, but environmentalists and utilities worked together between legislative sessions to reach a compromise they could both support.

"It's changed significantly since last year, but we still feel it's a good bill," said Gigi Kellett, a lobbyist for a nonprofit group that supports the bill.

The bill faces significant opposition from big energy users, including manufacturers, retailers and hospitals.

Michael Powell, lobbyist for the Maryland Industrial Group, said the legislation would cost Maryland manufacturers millions of dollars.

"If renewable energy was cheaper, you wouldn't have to make us buy it," he said.

Powell said his clients can't afford any increased costs in a highly competitive manufacturing environment.

"These are good jobs right now that are being lost to places like China and Indonesia. We can't afford to have our cost disadvantage get worse," he said.

Kellett, energy advocate for Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said such legislation has been adopted in 14 other states. She said there has been no significant increase in rates in those states.

In the long run, creating a market for providers of solar and wind power could help bring costs down, she said.

"Once they're up and running, once they have the financing in place, their fuel source is essentially free," Kellett said.

Alexander G. Nunez, senior public affairs representative for Constellation Energy Group, confirmed that the utility has reached an agreement with environmentalists on a bill it believes is workable.

Nunez said the company isn't claiming that the legislation would be cost-free, but he said any added expense to customers would be "minimal."

Busch said he's still hoping to find a compromise that will satisfy the big energy users.

"We have to work to build a consensus where everybody agrees this is the best long-term policy," he said.