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Don’t put spin on cost of wind turbines

You would be hard-pressed to find too many people opposed to wind energy in theory. The fossil fuel and nuclear industries? Some birders concerned about damage from turbine blades? After all, wind energy is clean, renewable and relatively safe to produce.

For those reasons, and to make the United States more energy self-sufficient, the Obama administration has placed wind power development on the fast track. More specifically, it is touting offshore wind production.

On Feb. 2, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled to Baltimore for a news conference during which he called the potential for wind power off the Atlantic coast “staggering.” He identified four “wind energy areas” off Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and, of course, Maryland.

That was music to the ears of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was standing next to Salazar. The governor has made offshore wind a cornerstone of his energy policy. He recently extracted a pledge from Exelon Corp. to invest more than $30 million in offshore wind development as part of a deal to back the firm’s plan to buy Baltimore-based Constellation Energy.

O’Malley would like to see a wind farm some 12 nautical miles off the coast of Ocean City. About 80,000 acres have been designated for leasing.

Now, fast-forward to last week, when members of the state Senate Finance Committee grilled O’Malley about his wind proposal. Some of the comments and questions directed at him were silly, but others were on point.

“Why should ratepayers, many of whom can’t pay their bills right now, pay for this investment?” asked Sen. Delores G. Kelley. The governor and the state Energy Administration puts the added cost for residential ratepayers of wind-generated electricity at about $2 a month.

A recent poll commissioned by the Marylanders for Offshore Wind Coalition indicated that about two-thirds of voters would be willing to pay the $2 for offshore wind. Some three-quarters of those surveyed believe the state should move toward renewable energy sources such as wind power. The poll results show that most of those responding were moved by the potential health benefits of wind power and the number of jobs potentially created.

The state says a 310-megawatt installation could mean 1,200 jobs during five years of construction and another 250 jobs in operations and maintenance.

But some, including a number of Republicans, are questioning both the $2-a-month cost figure and the forecast of jobs for Marylanders.

In fact, searching through a number of studies shows how difficult it is to come up with reliable numbers on wind energy costs. Quite a few variables are at play. They include equipment, site, ownership, backup generation, grid management etc. Then there’s the question of governmental subsidies and tax breaks – and their duration.

As for the job-creation numbers, Sen. Allan H. Kittleman questioned how much work would be done by Maryland residents.

To his credit, O’Malley said he’s “amenable and open to any way that we can move forward on this.” As he notes, Maryland has a requirement that 20 percent of its electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2022. Wind could become part of a portfolio that might include renewable sources such as solar power and biofuels.

Still, regarding wind, it’s imperative that the numbers add up accurately – and the public understands what it’s potentially getting into – before turbines begin spinning in the Atlantic.