Questions Abound Over Offshore Wind Bill’s Passage

OCEAN CITY — After three failed attempts in prior sessions, Governor Martin O’Malley’s Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013 was officially approved late last week, but it remains to be seen if the legislation is merely symbolic or if a vast wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City will become a reality.

Last Friday, the House approved O’Malley’s offshore wind energy bill by a vote of 88-48 after reconciling some of the amendments attached to the legislation by the Senate, which had earlier approved the bill by a vote of 30-15.

The proposal calls for a vast wind energy farm of as many as 40 turbines off the coast of Ocean City in an area designated as a Wind Energy Area in a range from 10 miles to 30 miles offshore. The intent is to diversify the state’s clean energy portfolio by providing as many as 200 megawatts of electricity for Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region.

The future wind farm would connect to a larger main transmission line offshore that would come ashore at some point along the Maryland coast and connect to the transmission system on the mainland for distribution across the grid. With the House approval last week, O’Malley is now prepared to sign the legislation into law and the governor was beaming after the positive vote last week.

“Offshore win is a potential win-win for Maryland,” he said. “This vote positions our state for greater job creation and opportunity, while moving us forward toward securing a more sustainable energy future.”

The key word in the governor’s statement could be “potential” because the passage of the bill by state lawmakers does not guarantee the vast wind turbine farm off the Ocean City coast will ever be built. Nonetheless, O’Malley said the approval represents a significant milestone in the process.

“By advancing this promising green technology, together we have also chosen to do the right thing for our planet,” he said. “Every megawatt-hour of energy we generate from clean wind power is a megawatt-hour of energy we are not burning into our atmosphere through dirty fossil fuels. This is a win for our jobs future, our energy future and, therefore, our children’s future.”

The next step will likely be a review by the state’s Public Service Commission to ensure the interests of the state’s citizens are preserved. The plan calls for the state’s ratepayers to subsidize the future project with an added fee on monthly electric bills. The estimated cost for residential customers comes in at around $1.50 a month, while large commercial users could pay an increase of up to 1.5 percent of their electric bill. Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), who voted in favor of the bill, said this week the PSC will now explore what those fees would mean to the state’s ratepayers.

“Now it goes to the Public Service Commission and the hard part of the bill,” he said. “The PSC has to determine the benefit for all Marylanders and that’s when we’ll see it start to move from a concept to a reality.”

Mathias said he supported the legislation after gaining some assurances his district’s interests were protected. Early on, some of the proposals had the main transmission line coming ashore at Assateague, but that idea was nixed after considerable public and private outcry. The transmission line will have to come ashore at some point along the Maryland coast, but Mathias said his concerns were allayed by some of the amendments attached to the bill.

“I voted for it and I’m satisfied our district’s interests are protected,” he said. “I did all I could to make sure that happened for Ocean City, Worcester County and the Lower Shore.”

Meanwhile, Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) voted against the governor’s offshore wind bill, calling it largely symbolic and impractical. He said the bill’s passage does not guarantee the wind farm off the coast of Ocean City will ever be built because of enormous regulatory, environmental and financial hurdles.

“Now comes the hard part, which is the implementation,” he said. “They basically have to go out and market this thing and see if anybody is even interested based on the parameters in the bill. Even with all of the caveats, it’s such a money loser because there is reluctance from the private sector to get involved.”

As he has in the past, McDermott said the bill represented the governor’s intent to add a green feather to his cap.

“So much of this is simply symbolism,” he said. “That’s what’s disturbing about it. We have a governor who put his name on a bill and now he can talk about how much he likes green energy.”

McDermott said those opposed attempted to move away from a grandiose offshore wind farm and focus more on practical smaller projects.

“We tried to get them to focus on small wind projects on farms, for example,” he said. “If we could get farms off the grid, we could have helped the poultry industry while helping the environment, but that isn’t sexy enough. We have this misguided effort to build those big wind turbines off the coast and it’s probably never going to happen.”

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