Offshore wind exerts wide appeal in Md.

February 19, 2012

When Maryland lawmakers return this week to a debate about offshore wind power, talk likely will focus on the minutiae of how much a subsidy for the fledgling industry will cost ratepayers.

Outside the State House, an unlikely alliance of supporters will be asking lawmakers to think bigger.

Harnessing electricity from skyscraper-like turbines, stretch-ed out in rows in the Atlantic, has proved to be an idea with magnetic appeal. It’s attracted not just environmentalists but steelworkers’ union members, health-care providers and religious groups.

“I have been working on
clean-energy issues for the last 10 years, and I have never seen an issue that mobilizes and captures the imagination of the public as much,” Mike Tidwell, president of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, recently told a gathering of green-energy financiers meeting in the District. “In offshore wind, you’ve got a solution that strikes the average person as sufficient to the scale of the problem. You’ve got something visionary, something large, something that looks and feels like the future.”

Even in deep-blue Maryland, where Democratic causes often draw mass support, the breadth and depth of grass-roots backing for offshore wind power stands out. The advocates’ message has been broadcast on billboards, carried on placards, talked about in small groups, even inscribed on Jewish holiday cards to state lawmakers.

If Gov. Martin O’Malley’s controversial plan to require ratepayers to subsidize development of an offshore wind farm passes, the calls, e-mails and visits from members of this unique coalition will have played no small part.

Much of the support has been corralled by advocacy organizations, including Tidwell’s Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Physicians for Social Responsibility and — playing a larger role in this year’s debate — Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a nondenominational group of churchgoers focused on fighting climate change.

After the General Assembly shelved a similar proposal from O’Malley (D) last year, the groups began focusing on key lawmakers and reaching out to organizations they thought might hold sway with the undecided.

One lawmaker who was unconvinced last year was Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who sits on a key committee that will decide whether to advance the governor’s bill this session.

Earlier this month, Kramer, who is Jewish, received a card for the Jewish holiday Tu b’Shevat that read, in part, “Thank you for your support of wind power and renewable energy in Maryland.”

The card came from Kayamut Sustainability Circle, a group of Jewish activists in Montgomery County for whom the offshore wind debate marks a transition from small-scale advocacy to involvement in state politics.

The group meets monthly in the Silver Spring community of Kemp Mill to discuss environmentally friendly practices. Organizers from Interfaith Power and Light recently began attending. They mentioned to the circle’s founder, Evonne Marzouk, that Kramer, who represents her district, could play an important role in the offshore wind debate.

Marzouk took it as an opportunity to expand her group’s mission. “Now, not only could we make a difference in our personal lives, we could make a difference for Maryland,” she said.

A recent Washington Post poll partially explains the swell of grass-roots support.

A majority of respondents — 55 percent — support efforts to jump-start the offshore wind-power industry in Maryland, even if that means increases of a couple of dollars a month in residential utility bills.

Under the governor’s plan, residential ratepayers would begin paying about $2 more per month in 2017 to subsidize generation of a power plant’s worth of offshore wind power.

O’Malley says the $2 per month — and a 2.5-percent increase for the state’s largest commercial and industrial businesses — would be a small price for what his administration calculates as the potential benefits: 1,800 new construction jobs, increased electricity production and reduced air pollution.

The plan remains a tough sell among lawmakers, however. Last week, O’Malley fielded questions for nearly an hour from Republican and Democratic members of a Senate committee who said they were concerned the plan would cost customers too much and leave too much power in the hands of regulators handpicked by O’Malley to structure the plan to guarantee a private developer a profit so that it can secure Wall Street financing.

Others said another $2 seemed over the top in combination with O’Malley’s proposals to raise income taxes on six-figure earners; add sales tax to gasoline purchases, which could add about 18 cents to the cost per gallon; and roughly double homeowners’ so-called “flush tax.”

Outside the State House, supporters were undeterred.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, a doctor-led environmental advocacy group that supported last year’s bill, had 20 doctors and nurses wearing lab coats and chanting “offshore wind — save our children.”

One of them was activist Lise Van Susteren, a Bethesda psychiatrist who staged a brief run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland as a Democrat in 2005 .

“I now know enough about what’s happening to people’s health to say anybody who doesn’t support this legislation has blood on their hands,” Van Susteren said.

Another sign-holder was Larry Egbert, 85, a retired anesthesiologist from Baltimore who caused national controversy as medical director of Final Exit Network, where he was involved with assisted suicides.

He came to the rally because offshore wind is “good for your health. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

For many, the offshore wind debate is a rare foray into hot-button environmental issues.

“This is the first time that I have signed a petition in recent memory that is directed more towards an environmental cause and less towards things that were specifically Catholic,” said the Rev. Scott Hahn, pastor at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Camp Springs.

Hahn joined 35 other religious leaders from Prince George’s County last week in writing a letter to Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) and four Prince George’s delegates to urge them to support O’Malley’s wind bill. The signers included Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Quaker, Baptist, Mennonite and Unitarian Universalist leaders.

The idea of wind energy may resonate with religious people for reasons outside of those usually mentioned, said Joelle Novey, director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.

Religious people “do see something poetic” about shifting from coal and oil, which come from the ground, to solar and wind, which come from the sky, Novey said.

“They look forward to the day when they’ll get their energy from heaven,” said Novey, who led the effort to collect signatures of Prince George’s County religious leaders.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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