Wouldn’t it be nice if cheap electric power that is renewable and non-polluting were readily available? Environmentalists say it is “blowin’ in the wind” — 10 miles from Ocean City. Placing 40 giant windmills in water near the coastline could capitalize on a strong and fairly consistent wind there. The shallower depths in those Atlantic waters make such a power project more economical, too.
The General Assembly is poised to approve a huge consumer subsidy to offshore wind developers, with Gov. Martin O’Malley leading the parade of Pollyanna optimists portraying this as a major breakthrough for clean energy. If only it were true.
In the decade since the first Atlantic offshore wind projects were proposed not one has gotten past the wishful thinking stage. There are zero offshore wind farms in the United States.
The cost of building such a facility is in the billions of dollars. The potential of catastrophic damage to giant wind turbines during hurricane season looms large. Given Republicans insistence on deep cuts in federal spending, existing tax credits — the key element in making such projects feasible — might not survive.
O’Malley’s latest proposal — the past two were defeated — will cost electric consumers more than $2 billion. It will raise the price of electric power for all Marylanders. Particularly hard hit will be supermarket chains, which consume huge amounts of electricity, industrial plants and small businesses that can ill afford another government-mandated expense.
Even at peak production times O’Malleys wind farm will generate only enough power to light 3 percent of Maryland homes. Worse still, this wind-generated electricity might never reach the Baltimore-Washington customers who are paying the subsidy but instead end up lighting homes in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.
That’s because expensive new transmission lines from Ocean City have to be built to deliver this power to central Maryland. It would be far cheaper for developers to sell their time-sensitive product to power providers in nearby cities.
This could turn out to be an expensive and impractical chunk of green Maryland energy. Electric rates for most homeowners will increase a whole lot more than the average $1.50 a month promoted by supporters, especially during peak winter and summer months.
But O’Malley and his environmental allies in the Democratic Party are in love with the notion of free offshore wind power — even though it is hardly free, it is not a dependable source, and it can’t be stored. The governor, though, claims that making Maryland a leader in offshore wind will spur development of a new green industry along the state’s Atlantic shoreline.
That’s a highly debatable assertion. This is do-gooder legislation of questionable practicality. It also comes with a delayed fuse for consumers: Higher electric rates won’t start until 2017 at the earliest.
More likely, it will never occur. O’Malley’s revamped bill supports such a small offshore project that lenders are unlikely to find it financially appealing. Besides, federal tax credits for offshore wind expire in January.
Still, it is a great political bauble for the liberal Democrat as he starts laying the groundwork for a national campaign. After all, who isn’t in favor of emissions-free power provided by Mother Nature?
Environmental Democratic activists adore the idea of going green with wind turbines that don’t add to our carbon footprint. Labor unions — always a key element in the party — see this construction project as a generator of 850 temporary jobs and 100 more permanent positions. O’Malley even added a sweetener to win over African-American party leaders with a requirement for minority construction contracts, although that adds extra costs to the project.
Ironically, O’Malley & Co. continue to ignore far cheaper, low-polluting alternatives. The governor refuses to allow wind farms in state-owned forests that dominate Western Maryland — the best sites in the state for generating cheap green power.
He has offered no plan to financially support construction of a third nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs — a low-polluting, long-term source of an enormous amount of inexpensive electricity. The governor also has failed to lead the way in promoting construction of natural gas power plants, even though the price of this high-efficiency, low-polluting fuel stands at historic lows that could continue for decades to come. Instead, O’Malley has barred hydraulic fracturing exploration in Garrett County to release gas trapped in Marcellus shale — a potentially lucrative new industry for isolated Garrett County, which has one of the worst unemployment rates in Maryland.
The offshore wind bill is on a glide path to General Assembly passage, thanks to new pressure from Senate President Mike Miller. He wants to give the governor a victory on this issue after two consecutive defeats.
Criticism of the bill has been muted this year. Everyone seems resigned to accepting a slimmed-down offshore wind subsidy, even though it adds another charge to consumers’ electric bills. That might be because prospects for it ever being implemented are growing less and less likely.
Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a writer/communications consultant. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.