January 30, 2012

IT’S A PROPOSAL that might sound great in a stump speech: Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wants to erect wind turbines off Maryland’s coast, eventually generating perhaps a third of the state’s electricity carbon-free. The plan is central to Mr. O’Malley’s recently announced 2012 agenda. But it’s a bad deal for nearly everyone in Maryland — including people who believe, as we do, in moving away from fossil fuels.

Perversely, Mr. O’Malley’s bill would corrupt the anti-carbon policy Maryland already has. Lawmakers have mandated that utilities derive 20 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2022. But instead of allowing electricity suppliers to meet that mandate in the cheapest ways they can devise, Mr. O’Malley would require that they satisfy a set portion of the state’s standard with offshore wind. Supporters insist that this would be “market-driven.” Hardly: One energy technology would have a monopoly on a portion of the market, even if it’s not the most efficient. Household energy bills could rise by as much as $2 a month, business bills by much more.

With or without the governor’s plan, Maryland’s carbon footprint will decrease under state law. The question is whether Mr. O’Malley will decree how to achieve that or electricity suppliers will maintain flexibility to comply with the state’s renewables mandate.

If efficiently cutting carbon is the real goal — and it ought to be — Maryland lawmakers should go in the opposite direction. The state’s renewables mandate already has one fiat written into it, requiring that utilities derive 2 percent of the state’s electricity from solar by 2022. Lawmakers should remove that. The mandate does not count nuclear power, which produces near-zero carbon emissions, as renewable, and it does not count natural gas, which produces half the emissions of coal. Lawmakers should add both, moving to a ”clean energy standard,” with natural gas counting for less.

Offshore wind backers reply that state and federal energy policy is shot through with inefficient tax breaks, grants and other incentives for all sorts of power sources, including fossil fuels. Get rid of all that, and then offshore wind would have more of a chance without its own special help. That would be fine with us. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the logic of renewable energy mandates such as Maryland’s is that they set aside a portion of the electricity market for low-carbon sources of energy. Under the mandate, they don’t have to compete with irrationally subsidized coal and oil — just with each other.

If offshore wind is the cheapest way for Maryland to meet its carbon goals, then more power to (and from) the wind farmers. If it’s not, the state should have policies in place that prevent people’s money from being wasted. Mr. O’Malley’s bill would do the opposite.