Maryland approves development of offshore wind energy

Maryland joins several other east coast states with offshore wind power projects in development or under consideration, including Massachusetts, Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia.

Presently, the U.S. has no operational offshore wind energy capacity.

Harnessing the power of ocean winds off the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast came a step closer to reality last week when the Maryland State Legislature approved the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013, authorizing a $1.7 billion subsidy over 20 years to kick-start development of a 200-megawatt wind farm projected to be operational in the next 4-7 years.

While bids have yet to be solicited or plans drawn, the offshore facility is expected to include as many as 40 wind turbines located 10-40 miles off the Maryland shore of the 170 mile-long Delmarva Peninsula, home to popular destinations such as Ocean City, and the protected barrier island of Assateague.

Appearing before the State Senate Finance committee last month, Governor Martin O’Malley (D) testified, “Wind is one of Maryland’s two most abundant natural resources. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates we could be generating 10,000 megawatts off the coast of our state alone. That’s enough energy to power every home in Maryland. This bill would get the ball rolling with 200 megawatts.”

Passage of the bill represents a hard-fought victory for O’Malley who, along with environmental and alternative energy groups, has advocated for such legislation for the past three years. Similar measures passed the Maryland House in 2010 and 2011, only to be stalled in the State Senate’s Finance Committee.

In order to secure passage this year, proponents scaled down previous versions of the project by nearly two-thirds, and included measures designed to broaden support.

A $10 million fund aims to assist small and minority businesses in gearing up to participate in the project, and a special task force will investigate the creation of degree programs in offshore wind at Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities.

In response to opposition over the impact of the $1.7 billion subsidy on energy rates, the 2013 bill caps project-related increases in residential bills at $1.50 per month, and increases in commercial rates at 1.5% annually. No project-related increase can go into effect until the wind farm is operational, at which time untilities will be required to purchase 2.5 percent of electricity from wind-generated sources.

Proponents estimate that the project will, over 5 years, create up to 850 jobs during manufacturing and construction, and 160 jobs thereafter in operations and maintenance. The project is also projected to reduce CO2 emissions by 378,000 tons per year, and reduce public health costs by $17 million annually.

Six firms previously expressed interest in bidding for an offshore lease, but whether the scaled-down project as approved will still be attractive to potential developers remains to be seen. A $3.3 million ocean floor survey, already contracted by the state, should add some incentive by providing developers with a clearer picture of how and where wind turbines might be anchored.

Other considerations factoring into the final location and timing of the project include ongoing state and federal inquiries into its potential impacts upon birds, fish, marine mammals and shipping lanes.