ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s quest for offshore wind energy got a boost Thursday from the Obama administration, but state lawmakers still have concerns about its cost and whether there is corporate demand and congressional support for the technology.
U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar announced Thursday the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has designated 80,000 acres of water off Maryland’s Atlantic coast that would be suitable for wind farms.
Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, called the development a major step forward as he looks to convince the General Assembly this year to pass his bill which would define criteria for wind projects and bolster the state’s renewable energy portfolio.
“We need the energy, we have the resources and we need the jobs,” the governor said during an event in Baltimore with Mr. Salazar. “No one can predict every single step on the way forward, but this is a big, important and complicated undertaking.”
Last month, the governor introduced a bill that would pave the way for offshore wind and provide incentives for Maryland utility companies that buy renewable energy credits from wind-energy providers.
The bill was toned down from one Mr. O’Malley unsuccessfully pushed last year which would have required utilities to enter wind contracts.
There was bipartisan concern last year that wind energy’s cost would cause consumer energy bills to skyrocket, but the governor says this year’s bill would aim to limit average bill increases to no more than $2 a month.
Mr. O’Malley has said implementing offshore wind would reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and attract energy firms and create more than 2,000 jobs in advance of other states pursuing wind technology.
Offshore wind would also help the state meet its goal of receiving 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022.
The state currently gets 6.7 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
Concerns, however, have persisted among lawmakers that wind-energy firms aren’t financially ready to build new projects, that resulting rate hikes would be hard to predict, and that the state is better off pursuing relatively cheap natural gas.
Worries have grown in recent months as a planned wind farm in Delaware was scrapped over funding issues and as Congress has continued to delay extending federal tax incentives for wind energy beyond this year.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, whose committee will consider the governor’s bill, said a $2-a-month increase on average energy bills is still too much, and that the bill could be amended for utilities to shoulder more of the potential costs.
“It’s going to be awfully difficult to get a bill out of our committee where the ratepayer has got to take on the financial responsibility,” said Mr. Middleton, Charles Democrat. “These are really, really tough times and people are hurting.”
Thursday’s announcement could put to rest at least one long-held criticism that wind farms off Maryland’s coast could interfere with shipping routes or naval exercises.
Federal officials also announced they have designated safe ocean space off the coasts of Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.
In Maryland, wind-energy firms would lease ocean space from the federal government, but would then have their proposed projects vetted by the state’s Public Service Commission.
The state received an important initial investor in December when Chicago-based Exelon Corp. agreed to invest $30 million in offshore wind as part of its proposed $7.9-billion takeover of Constellation Energy, which owns Baltimore Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility provider.
Delegate Thomas Hucker, Montgomery Democrat and wind-energy supporter, said he thinks the governor’s bill can pass but that proponents still must clearly lay out its advantages over last year’s legislation.
The O’Malley administration will begin making its case Feb. 14 during a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
“We’re really trying to create a whole industry and not just pass a bill, and that has to be done the right way,” Mr. Hucker said. “The ball has been handed off to us and we need to get it across the goal line.”
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