April 1, 2012

This week lawmakers in Annapolis will decide — probably once and for all — whether Maryland will become a major developer and manufacturer of offshore wind turbines along its Atlantic coastline. The wind is certainly there. Just walk the beaches of Ocean City and hang on tight to your double-scoop fudge cone.

The question is: Will Maryland-based companies build — and profit from — the array of wind farms that will inevitably appear one day 10 miles off our coast? Or will New Jersey companies build them for us, or perhaps companies from Germany? Will our energy dollars just flow to faraway economies?

Last week, the House of Delegates voted for Maryland, passing House Bill 441 to incentivize construction of about 40 large windmills off the coast of Ocean City by an 88 to 47 margin. The bill includes specific features that protect ratepayers, and it guarantees a net economic benefit for the state if the wind farm moves forward. Now the Senate must follow the House lead.

But recent Post editorials have raised a good question: Why should Maryland “pick a winner” in the form of offshore wind power amid all the other types of renewable energy out there? Why not let them all compete without favoritism?

The problem is that the state’s current law setting renewable energy standards allows for alternative energy that enters Maryland’s grid from as far away as Illinois, at ratepayer expense. This ultimately limits local economic benefits and voter enthusiasm for clean energy. In fact, as global warming intensifies (noticed any strange weather lately?) and conventional fuels dwindle, societies all over the world have begun moving to develop clean, renewable-energy projects that match local resources. Sunny Arizona is moving forward with utility-scale solar. Iceland has developed staggering geothermal systems that tap volcanic heat.

And what’s Maryland’s unique renewable resource? Offshore wind, by a huge measure. Multiple studies show that there’s enough coastal wind — blowing day and night, in shallow water and close to consumers — to power nearly our entire grid. The sooner we “pick” this obvious winner, the sooner we’ll have truly abundant clean energy in our state.

And yes, offshore wind costs more, but that will change in coming years. There are 49 offshore wind farms in Europe, zero in America. As wind farms are built along the Atlantic coast and economies of scale prevail, the price will come down significantly. And all this will happen as climate change intensifies, pushing governments to further hasten to phase out carbon fuels.

So offshore wind — Maryland’s most abundant renewable resource — is a good bet. By investing now, we dramatically increase the chance our state will be a regional manufacturing hub for turbines and supply-chain parts as other states follow our lead. No wonder polls — including one by The Post — show that a majority of Maryland voters support offshore wind development.

So now’s the time for the Maryland Senate to follow the House’s lead, especially as gasoline prices grow ever more volatile. Consider this: When the Cape Wind offshore wind project comes on line in Massachusetts (likely to be the first ocean-based wind farm in America at about 19 cents a kilowatt hour), you will be able to power a Nissan Leaf electric car with this wind at the equivalent of about $2 per gallon.

With numbers like that, it’s not hard to see where future East Coast energy markets are headed. If it acts today, Maryland will be ready.

The writer is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.