In U.S. Race to Reap Offshore Wind, Ambitions for Maryland Remain High

Gov. O'Malley's offshore wind energy bill is likely to pass next year and unleash a new multibillion-dollar clean energy industry, supporters say

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley/Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

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Massachusetts is officially poised to have America’s first offshore wind farm, now that Cape Wind has won federal approval to begin construction. The news knocks Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey out of that heated title competition for now.

Maryland, for its part, took itself out of the Northeast wind war this month when lawmakers shelved a bill expected to unleash the state’s offshore wind industry over cost concerns. It is likely a temporary setback.

Supporters insist that Gov. Martin O’Malley’s wind bill will pass next year and offshore turbines will be added to the grid in due time.

In interviews with SolveClimate News, industry officials, environmental groups and the O’Malley administration all said they will work closely with lawmakers over the summer interim to address the uncertainties that held up the bill this session. 

O’Malley, who was recently elected to his second term, has lobbied intensely to bring offshore wind to Maryland’s eastern coast in an effort to boost the state’s renewable energy profile and attract green manufacturing jobs.

In February, he introduced the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act, which would guarantee revenue for an estimated $1.5 billion, 500-megawatt wind farm by requiring the state’s four investor-owned utilities to sign 25-year purchasing agreements with wind developers.

Amid concerns that the project would burden ratepayers, O’Malley later capped expected rate hikes at two dollars per monthly residential bill and 2 percent of bills for large businesses.

Baltimore Gas & Electric, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative and a Washington Gas subsidiary continued to openly oppose the bill, while a fourth utility, Pepco, was officially neutral.

As the session neared its April 11 adjournment, legislators in the Senate Finance and House Economic Matters committees still felt uneasy about how operational and maintenance costs on the offshore farm would add up. They wondered if Maryland’s turbines could get pushed onto the North Carolina grid because some lots approved for leasing are actually closer to that state’s power system.

On April 7, both committees opted not to take the bill up for a vote.

“This was one of the busiest sessions any of us have had. We had a lot of major issues on all of the committees’ desks … We didn’t have time to go into what the impact of this was going to be,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton, who co-sponsored the wind bill, told SolveClimate News.

“My intention is that when we sit down at the beginning of next session, we will have all the answers to our questions so we can make an intelligent decision based on what the facts are,” he said.

Eight Developers Make Proposals

Middleton added that this summer his committee will study the progress of the 130-turbine, 468-megawatt Cape Wind offshore farm in Nantucket Sound, Mass.

The U.S. government finally approved the project on Tuesday after a decade-long federal permitting process concluded in January. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that construction of America’s first offshore project could begin as early as this fall.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, a lobbying group, said that he expects Maryland’s wind energy act will fare better its second time around.

He noted that eight developers — including three European firms — had already proposed to lease lots in federal waters roughly 11 miles off the coast after a state/federal task force issued siting recommendations last year.

“We think that with some work over the summer … we’ll see a positive outcome in 2012,” he told SolveClimate News.

Shaun Adamec, a spokesperson for O’Malley, said in an interview that the governor was undeterred by the delay.

He added that the Maryland Energy Administration and Abigail Hopper, the governor’s energy adviser, would work together to address lawmakers’ concerns about the bill’s impact on ratepayers and businesses.

“This was essentially the creation of a multibillion-dollar industry for Maryland. It is new, it is innovative and it is complex, and it is something that couldn’t be done in one legislative session,” he said.

“We’ll use the opportunity to educate the lawmakers who needed a little more time to examine these issues, and we’ll go from there.”

In the meantime, however, the bill’s postponement will stall efforts to build one of the nation’s first offshore wind farms as developers hesitate to invest ahead of a guaranteed revenue stream.

The delay also puts Maryland behind other nearby states where offshore wind initiatives are steadily picking up.

Maryland Behind Delaware, Others

In Delaware last month, NRG Bluewater Wind became the first U.S. wind-power developer to begin negotiating a lease with the federal government for a planned wind farm some 13 miles off the coast.

The project will include between 49 large turbines and 150 smaller ones for enough power to supply electricity to at least 54,000 homes. The developer had previously signed a 25-year supply contract with the utility Delmarva Power, and the turbines are expected to start producing electricity no later than 2016.

Earlier this year, Providence, R.I.-based Deepwater Wind — the state’s preferred developer — applied to federal authorities to build a 200-turbine, 1,000-megawatt project about 20 miles off the coast. The wind farm could cost up to $5 billion, with up to $1 billion more needed for an undersea transmission system.

New Jersey officials are set to hold a competitive process for five wind developers following an August 2010 law that provides for a series of tax credits and financial incentives meant to spur offshore wind development in the state.

Other projects are at various stages in New York, North Carolina and Texas, while Ohio wants to build a 20-megawatt, $100 million wind demonstration project on Lake Erie.

As the U.S. races to bring offshore wind energy online in the next few years, nine European countries have already installed nearly 3,000 megawatts of total maritime wind capacity, according to the European Wind Energy Association.

China also commissioned 134 megawatts of offshore wind energy from two demonstration farms in 2010.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is eager to compete. It aims to install 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 54,000 megawatts by 2030, in an effort to help reach the administration’s goal of providing 80 percent of the country’s electricity from cleaner sources by 2035.

The development coalition’s Lanard said that the lack of tried-and-tested experience in U.S. offshore wind farms likely contributed to the Maryland lawmakers’ uncertainty on the state’s wind energy plan.

“It’s very understandable for legislators to be asking these important questions about offshore wind and how it works and what the costs are, because this is new to the United States,” he said.

He added that when state and federal governments are able to offer developers regulatory and financial certainty, “We’re going to see tens of thousands of people working in the offshore wind industry in the United States.”

Bill: 2,000 Jobs and Boost to RPS Goals

Tommy Landers, a policy advocate for Environment Maryland, said that O’Malley’s wind bill offered a “trifecta” of benefits: stable electricity costs over the period of the contracts; job creation from the wind farm and related manufacturing industries; and a host of environmental improvements brought on by cutting fossil fuel consumption.

“Politically, it is great that we made as much progress as we did this year. It is a big project, it is a big bill and it is a lot of legislation to grapple with as well,” he said.

O’Malley’s office estimates that a 500-megawatt offshore farm would create 2,000 manufacturing and construction jobs for five years and an additional 400 ongoing supply and operations and maintenance jobs annually over 25 years.

The economic impact of offshore wind for a five-year period is more than $1.9 billion and 8,200 job-years, plus $14 million in state tax revenues, according to the office.

The wind farm would supply enough electricity to power nearly 80 percent of all the homes on Maryland’s eastern shore, or more than half of the homes in Baltimore City (whose population is around 637,000 people).

A 500-megawatt offshore farm would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 945,000 tons per year.

Landers noted that offshore wind development would give a major boost to Maryland’s renewable energy goals.

In 2008, O’Malley passed a bill to accelerate the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Utilities must now get 20 percent of electricity from Tier 1 renewable sources like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass by 2022.

Two percent of that total must come from solar energy alone, and an additional 2.5 percent of electricity must come from Tier 2 resources — such as trash and biowaste incineration — through 2018, after which point Tier 2 requirements drop off.

The governor expects that an offshore wind project could generate enough clean energy to supply 10 to 15 percent of the standard. Today, over 90 percent of Maryland’s renewable energy supply is imported.

Waste Energy Beats Out Offshore Wind?

Maryland could also bolster its RPS with a waste energy bill, which cleared the General Assembly this session and is awaiting O’Malley’s anticipated approval.

The measure would elevate waste incineration from Tier 2 to Tier 1 status under the RPS and increase subsidies to existing plants that burn waste to generate electricity.

The incinerator bill’s success over the offshore wind initiative’s pause has drawn criticism from environmental community, who see legislators as opting for dirty energy over clean technology.

“It is outrageous that legislators would say yes to throwing away ratepayer money by subsidizing existing incinerators while saying no to a small fee that would create jobs and reduce pollution with offshore wind power,” Brad Heaver, state director of Environment Maryland, said in an April 12 press release.

State Sen. Middleton, who also co-sponsored the waste bill, noted that waste incinerators are subject to emissions regulations under the federal Clean Air Act and emit about as much carbon dioxide as a natural gas-fired power plant.

He said that waste incinerators would not replace offshore wind ambitions, but rather work in tandem by possibly helping to offset the higher costs of new renewable energy generation.

“There maybe be a way that we can look at these two projects together so that you have a less expensive renewable energy softening the cost of offshore wind,” he said. “I’m willing to look at that scenario.”