Trivia question: What governor signed the first legislation in Maryland to boost solar energy from a cottage industry to a major business in the state? Was it liberal Democrat Parris Glendening? Current Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat? Or conservative Republican Robert Ehrlich?
The answer is Ehrlich, he of the Grand Old Party. In 2004, he signed the wonky-sounding Renewable Portfolio Standard Act. That bill required, for the first time, that a small percentage of Maryland’s electricity come from clean, renewable energy.
Ten years later, with Republican businessman Larry Hogan set to take over the governor’s office, here’s another trivia question: What Maryland industry today represents a larger share of the state’s economy in terms of dollars and jobs — the crab industry or the solar industry?
You guessed it: solar. That industry now outperforms even the iconic crustacean, thanks to the door-opening legislation signed by Ehrlich. The quarter-billion-dollar Maryland solar sector today employs 2,000 people in more than 150 companies, almost none of which existed before 2004.
Here’s the best part: There are many, many more solar jobs yet to come in Maryland. High-paying jobs. Jobs that won’t be outsourced to China. But there’s a caveat: The jobs will continue to grow only if Maryland continues to encourage investment in clean energy — solar and wind. Those investments help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, reduce climate change pollution and save billions of dollars in health costs. And they are a great economic shot in the arm.
And now Hogan can expand the prosperity. A “big tent” coalition of advocates, ranging from the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore to the League of Women Voters to the chief executives of some of the fastest-growing (and Maryland-based) companies in the United States, will be asking the General Assembly to pass a bill to double the state’s commitment to clean electricity. Building on the policy framework Ehrlich signed in 2004, the legislation would set aside a full 40 percent of the state’s electrical grid for renewable power by the year 2025. That’s an increase from the current state target of 20 percent.
This robust jump is doable and necessary for several reasons. First, University of Maryland climate scientists and experts worldwide warn that only through carbon-free energy development will we avoid the worst impacts of sea-level rise linked to climate change. One study showed that, in Baltimore City and County alone, ocean rise will wipe out $2.2 billion in economic value, including destroying 52 miles of roads, three churches, three museums, two medical facilities and 11 hazardous waste sites.
That’s not good for anybody’s pocketbook. But the simultaneously falling prices for wind and solar power, plummeting worldwide because of advances in technology and manufacturing efficiency, are good. This allows for more expansive public policies that further accelerate the process, increasing economic gain and reducing economic pain from climate change. Several states and entire nations have clean-electricity standards of 30 percent to 40 percent. Maryland should join that pack.
But none of this would be possible — and Maryland’s envy-of-the-nation solar industry would not exist — were it not for the bipartisan beginnings 10 years ago. Michael Busch was in his first term as speaker of the House in 2004 when he and his workhorse chief of staff, Tom Lewis, rounded up votes for the clean-electricity bill. The original bill had a goal of just 7.5 percent clean power. But presciently, Busch and Lewis told lawmakers that the legislation would be a 21st-century driver of the Maryland economy as well as a needed response to climate change. On the Senate side, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. agreed, delivering a bipartisan majority. All the while, Ehrlich indicated he would sign the bill. He inked it into law with a full signing ceremony.
Now the table is set for Hogan, Busch and Miller in 2015. The bad news is climate change is happening much faster than anyone predicted. The good news is that clean energy has created more jobs at a lower cost in Maryland.
Maryland is ready, in every way, to double its commitment to clean power so that in 10 years, no matter who is governor, it will get nearly half its power and a huge share of its jobs from the wind and sun.
The writer is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.