Wind power is worth the investment of $2 a month for Maryland households

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 25, 2012

Even in liberal Maryland, it’s impossible to persuade legislators to make families pay an extra $2 a month for offshore windmills if the goal is merely to fight global warming. Green idealists in Montgomery County get excited about clean electric power, but the rest of the state rolls its eyes.

This is self-defeating, in the long run. Maryland has so many miles of low-lying shoreline that it ranks fourth in the nation in vulnerability to erosion and flooding caused by a rise in sea levels. (Virginia is at risk, too, especially the Hampton Roads area.)

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Nonetheless, the political reality is that the General Assembly won’t vote for wind power just to protect the planet.

Instead, the way to sell the project is to stress that it will create more than 1,000 new manufacturing jobs and put Maryland on the ground floor of a new industry with great potential. Then legislators from blue-collar districts in Baltimore start dreaming of big orders for steel, concrete and the port to put their constituents to work.

That’s a lesson learned by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and other clean energy advocates as they push a bill for a second year in a row aimed at building about 60 wind turbines 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City.

The effort failed miserably last year, and legislators faulted O’Malley for rushing forward with a half-baked plan. Today, however, a bill crafted with more safeguards is receiving a friendlier reception. The governor’s office and other supporters are cautiously optimistic that some kind of wind power plan will be approved.

Key legislators “are much more educated about the issue [than before]. I think they understand the promise,” said Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. “We’re trying to create an industry and get the jobs that come with it.”

For O’Malley, the bill offers a chance to establish an environmental legacy that would help him win Democratic primaries if — okay, when — he runs for president. Wind power represents one of his best chances of securing a major achievement in the current legislative session, in addition to the recent passage of same-sex marriage.

Maryland also stands to benefit. The state is unusually well-suited to play a leading role in a new, East Coast wind power industry, providing it jumps in early ahead of potential competitors.

Maryland boasts two traits that give it an edge: a happy accident of ocean depth and industrial facilities in Baltimore and elsewhere on the Chesapeake Bay with ready access to the sea.

Off its coast, Maryland has a large expanse of shallow waters, where wind turbines can be erected at comparatively low cost. By contrast, offshore wind would be substantially more expensive in California, because the big drop-off in the ocean floor is closer to the coast.

As a result, Maryland could obtain more than two-thirds of its electricity from the cheapest variety of wind farms, those built in depths of 35 meters or less, according to a scholarly paper published in January in the journal Renewable Energy.

“The offshore wind resource thus represents an opportunity for Maryland to generate most of its electricity without importing fuel, to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the state’s electric power sector and increase air quality in the region,” said the peer-reviewed paper by University of Delaware researchers headed by Blaise Sheridan.

That’s enough to persuade me to pay two bucks more each month, which the legislation requires to be the maximum projected cost for an average residential household.

But that’s not yet sufficient to persuade the General Assembly. Legislators are wary of burdening voters with extra costs when O’Malley is also pressuring them to make people pay more for gasoline and water service, and to raise some income taxes. They’re skeptical even though a recent Washington Post poll found 55 percent of Marylanders support O’Malley’s plan.

In Annapolis, the lure that could tip the balance for wind power is the chance of starting an industry to sell concrete foundations, steel towers and blades, and power cables for wind farms up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

Advocates point to the experience in western Europe, which is about 15 years ahead of the United States in developing wind power. Denmark and Germany started first and now are benefiting by selling equipment to Britain and other latecomers.

“The early starters will attract the manufacturers, and then they’ll stay. Maryland will be right up front attracting these companies,” said Ross Tyler, acting executive director of the Business Coalition for Maryland Offshore Wind.

Save beaches, clean the air and create jobs. Regardless of which goal matters to you most, that’s worth $2 a month.

For previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to postlocal.com.

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