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Official says offshore wind isn’t dead

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley’s energy advisor said Tuesday that a field of offshore wind turbines may not start spinning in 2017, as planned, but rebutted a recent report that said the project won’t ever be built.

“We strongly object to those characterizations,” said Abigail Hopper, acting director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

The offshore wind bill, cross-filed as HB 226 and SB 275, guarantees a market for developers of the wind farm planned for 10 to 30 miles off Ocean City by requiring a relatively small percentage of electricity to be produced by the turbines by 2022.

To generate interest in the bill, earlier versions of which failed in the last two sessions of the General Assembly, it has been significantly scaled back from O’Malley’s original proposal, and the cost to residential and business energy customers has been capped, making the economics more difficult for potential developers.

Those developers — and even O’Malley — have admitted that difficulty. Last month, O’Malley said it would likely take a multi-state effort to develop the first East Coast offshore wind farm, plus the continuation of federal subsidies. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that some developers are highly skeptical the project could be financed.

But Hopper said Tuesday that of the six companies that showed interest in developing an offshore wind program last year, four support O’Malley’s bill and its requirements. In addition, there is new interest from two more companies, Virginia-based Apex Wind Energy Inc. and Bluewater Wind, Hopper said.

“I think it’s fair to say there might be a mix of opinion,” she said.

Even if there is disagreement about the financial feasibility of building, installing and operating the turbines, Hopper didn’t have to do much explaining in the House of Delegates’ Economic Matters Committee, where the panel asked for and received a quick review of the bill —a near-identical version of which was before them last year.

The legislation is apparently destined for its annual trip to the governor for signing. The House passed the bill last year with ease, and the Senate has as many cosponsors as votes needed to pass it.

Several groups including Environment Maryland and the Greater Baltimore Committee testified in favor of the bill. A handful were opposed, including the Maryland Retailers Association, which said higher electricity bills would force grocery stores to raise food prices.

“We’re not against the environment,” said Jeff Zellmer, the association’s lobbyist. “But we’re against this expensive piece of green energy.”

But even Zellmer seemed to understand that the bill was earmarked for approval.

“I know I’m in this game as a 42-point underdog,” he said.

The committee could vote on the bill as soon as this week, said Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s, the panel’s chairman.

The happy faces of environmental lobbyists after the hearing showed they were confident the panel would send the bill to the full House and that the corresponding bill would pass in the Senate.

Some are already cautiously looking several years down the line. It’s possible that once the legislation is in place, the offshore wind program could expand from its current 200 megawatts to something larger — and perhaps more economical — before 2017, the first year the wind farm could be built.