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State panel approves offshore wind farm land survey

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland energy officials have checked another item off a long list of tasks the state must complete before it can produce power through offshore wind turbines.

The Board of Public Works on Wednesday unanimously approved a contract that will allow the state to survey the ocean floor 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City.

St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Coastal Planning & Engineering Inc. will “conduct a high-resolution geophysical survey” of the area designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as the location where energy-producing wind turbines could be built, according to the state spending panel’s agenda.

The $3.3 million award authorizes Coastal Planning & Engineering to conduct the survey and provide the state with data that can turn over to a future developer. The data will help that developer speed construction and operation of the wind farm, said Abigail R. Hopper, acting director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

Before ultimately voting to approve the contract along with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, Comptroller Peter Franchot showed some concern that the state was picking up a tab that should rightfully belong to a future developer.

“Why do we feel compelled to subsidize [their development]?” Franchot asked.

Hopper said companies might be reluctant to apply to develop an offshore wind farm without some investment by the state. She added that nine companies have told federal regulators they are interested in developing such a farm in Maryland waters.

An application should be ready for distribution in the first quarter of 2013, and the land could be leased this summer, Hopper said.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in November announced that an area off the coast of Virginia and a shared area off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island were ready to be leased for development. Hopper said Wednesday that Maryland would not be far behind.

“I think we are very close to the front of the pack,” she said.

Legislation pushed by Gov. Martin O’Malley last year that would have guaranteed wind energy developers a market while limiting the cost of wind energy production to consumers passed in the House of Delegates, but did not come to a vote in the Senate Finance Committee. O’Malley intends to introduce a similar bill in the General Assembly session that begins next week.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, appears committed to getting offshore wind legislation to the floor of his chamber in 2013. The longtime presiding officer has said he could shuffle the lineup of the Finance Committee in order to find the votes necessary to bring the legislation up for debate in the full Senate.

“I am going to try and move the wind bill this year,” Miller said in an interview Wednesday.

While the state works to establish its own regulatory framework, federal inaction had threatened to derail offshore wind energy production until late New Year’s Day, when Congress included an extension of tax credits for wind energy production and investment in its fiscal cliff agreement that also prevented broad federal tax increases and spending cuts.

Local and national wind energy advocates immediately commended lawmakers. Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, said in a statement that the extension of the investment tax credit in particular offered “the certainty that developers need” and the agreement was “a major step forward for the offshore wind industry.”

“The industry is poised to create thousands of jobs for manufacturing, construction, operation and maintenance of utility-scale offshore wind farms,” Lanard said. “While offshore wind is a proven technology — it’s been operating successfully for more than 20 years in Europe — it’s new to the U.S., and tax credits are a necessary component to support the growth of this emerging industry.”

Environment Maryland Executive Director Tommy Landers said existing wind power usage in Maryland saves as much pollution as taking 35,000 cars off the road each year.

“We applaud our leaders for recognizing these tremendous benefits to our health and environment and for acting to ensure the continued development of pollution-free wind energy,” Landers said.

If an offshore wind farm is built off Ocean City, it would constitute a “very small percentage of Maryland’s energy mix,” Hopper said. The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, pushed by O’Malley, requires 20 percent of Maryland power to come from renewable resources by 2022. How much of that would come from offshore wind depends largely on the legislature.