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Md. offshore wind bill may be held up

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature piece of energy legislation may be put on hold this year, tripped up by lawmakers’ reservations about the cost of guaranteeing a market in Maryland for offshore wind energy.

The bills being considered in the General Assembly would require electric utilities in the state to buy a total of between 400 megawatts and 600 megawatts of generating capacity for 20 years from turbines to be located off the coast.

“I have real concerns about [the bill] right now,” said Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, through which the governor’s bill must pass if it is to get a vote in the full chamber.

Middleton said worries about the cost have generated interest in watering down the legislation, SB 881 and HB 1054, to study the issue over the summer.

“I don’t want to see the bill go away,” he said. “I think the bill needs a lot of study. Whether they can get it done this session, I don’t know.”

O’Malley has made a strong push for the legislation, testifying in person in front of the finance committee and the House Economic Matters Committee about the need for Maryland to keep up with its neighbors as they, too, work to take advantage of electric generating capacity off their costs.

“We’re in a race with other states up and down the mid-Atlantic to get these projects in place,” said Joseph C. Bryce, the governor’s chief legislative officer.

Bryce said the governor was scheduled to speak with Middleton about the legislation Wednesday night, and had been meeting with “three or four” lawmakers a day for the last week to discuss the wind bills, starting with members of the House.

A work group in the Senate met for the first time Friday to hammer out sticking points in the legislation. Middleton said getting all interested parties on board will be a “yeoman’s task.”

O’Malley has built a coalition to support his effort around environmentalists who like the green aspects of wind energy, and unions that see potentially thousands of jobs associated with construction and operation of a wind farm.

But business groups and power companies oppose the effort, arguing that the cost passed on to consumers is too great.

Cost estimates for the governor’s proposal have ranged from less than $1.50 per month on residential electric bills, to more than $8. A report by Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group Inc. found offshore wind energy to be the second-most expensive type, behind only solar. And a legislative analysis of the governor’s proposal estimated residential customers would pay $3.61 more per month starting in 2016, when the state anticipates a wind farm could be up and running off Ocean City.

“I think there’s a reluctance to do anything that raises electric bills any amount,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. “Even if you’re on the low end of the range, I think that’s something that folks have reservations about.”

He called that problem, however, “not insurmountable” and said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s prospects.

Wind energy could be a boon for the district of House Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, but the Eastern Shore Republican said she has “serious issues” with the wind legislation. She said the state should take at least another year to study the long-term cost to consumers.

“If it is $1.41 [a month], like the governor’s office says it is, then I think there’s a lot more tolerance on behalf of Marylanders, than at $8 a month at a time when gas prices are going up and the price of food is going up,” Haddaway-Riccio said.

The governor will be joined Wednesday afternoon in Annapolis by labor and environmental leaders to promote what his office has called “a final push” for the wind bill with just three weeks left in the legislative session. The administration estimates the building a wind farm in 207 square miles off the coast designated for development by the federal government would create 2,000 construction and manufacturing jobs and 400 permanent jobs.

O’Malley has dropped a companion bill to the utility requirement this week. It would have qualified manufacturers of turbines and turbine components for economic development incentives worth up to $50 million, but Bryce said the administration believes it has enough flexibility in the existing incentive programs to offer the sweeteners to those companies that move to or expand in Maryland.