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Will offshore wind blow through the next session?

In the next couple of months, Gov. Martin O’Malley and his advisers will decide whether offshore wind is going to be a legislative priority again, his spokeswoman said.

“I definitely wouldn’t rule it out,” Raquel Guillory said.

But O’Malley (D), who made offshore wind the central pillar of his energy policy – only to see his efforts stall twice in the General Assembly – is facing complicating factors this time around.

Foremost is the possible expiration of a federal tax credit. But also of note are increasing concerns about the viability of offshore wind farms that have – thus far – been untried in the United States.

Hovering in the background are the governor’s political ambitions, including a possible run for the White House in 2016.

During the last General Assembly session, O’Malley’s wind legislation made it through the House of Delegates, but died in Senate committee.

The governor’s proposal would have added $2 – later amended down to $1.50 in the House committee – to each residential customer’s monthly bill, and tacked on a 2.5 percent fee to large commercial customers, in order to subsidize a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City.

Whether or not he is able to get legislation through in the upcoming session shouldn’t hurt his long-term political ambitions, said Nate Hultman, professor of energy policy at University of Maryland, College Park’s School of Public Policy.

“O’Malley has chosen a couple of very high-profile public policies that he’s pursued, like same-sex marriage and offshore wind,” Hultman said. “But [offshore wind] is not something with a broad, high profile that touches a lot of constituents,” unlike health care or same-sex marriage.

“In the end, he’s on the record as being in favor of this, but with few direct costs to him,” Hultman said, and that’s a good thing.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee where O’Malley’s wind bill died in the last session, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the governor introduced another bill.

“He keeps pushing this, and the General Assembly has said no and said no,” Pipkin said.

Part of the committee’s concern has to do with the cost of getting wind up and running, and part has to do with whether the cost is worth the benefit.

“It’s not necessarily a smart energy solution,” said Pipkin, referring to the fact that wind doesn’t blow all the time, and tends to slack during the summer months when electricity is most needed.

“This has more to do with crony government than good energy policy,” Pipkin said.

Wind study in works

Raising the stakes on offshore wind, the state is mandated by law to have renewable sources account for 20 percent of the power in the grid in 2020.

“Without [offshore wind energy], it will be extremely difficult to meet our renewable energy portfolio goals with in-state resources,” said Andrew Gohm, the Maryland Energy Administration’s clean energy program manager.

Ultimately, it is up to utility companies to get electricity from renewable sources, but O’Malley is looking to make it easier and more attractive to wind developers.

Last month, the Maryland Energy Administration and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced they will be partnering through a fund set up by the Exelon merger to study the efficacy of a wind farm off Maryland’s coast. The research otherwise would have to be funded by potential developers.

While the agencies have worked together on “desktop research,” as Gohm calls it, little has been done to study what’s actually going on in the water and on the sea floor, where wind turbines could end up.

“There’s not a lot of in-the-water research,” he said. “We want to get a good idea of all the area around the [proposed wind farm].”

About 79,000 acres have been designated as a Wind Energy Area, located about 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City. The energy administration estimates that the site could produce as much as 1,000 megawatts of energy from about 200 turbines.

The research will be paid for out of the $30 million Maryland Offshore Wind Development Fund, a product of the merger settlement in December between Exelon and Constellation Energy.

The two state agencies will look at how the wind farm could affect marine mammal populations in the area, migratory patterns of birds and how species might relocate to other areas. A request for proposal has been issued for a contractor to take high-resolution geophysical surveys of the ocean floor.

The research is necessary, Gohm said, to satisfy federal regulators before any offshore wind farms can be developed in the area. That means one less step and millions of dollars saved for firms looking to put turbines in the water.

“The thing that’s very disturbing is that the studies are going forward, and it’s the taxpayer who is paying it,” Pipkin said.

“We say that we don’t have money for this or this, but we’re paying for studies that the [power] companies should be paying for.”

Federal foibles

The possible expiration of federal tax credits for wind energy developers on Dec. 31 is throwing the industry into a tailspin, adding hurdles to O’Malley’s path to offshore wind.

Currently, the Wind Production Tax Credit provides 2.2 cents for every kilowatt hour produced by a project in its first 10 years of operation. Advocates are pushing for the tax credit’s renewal, which is anything but certain.

If it’s to be extended, the tax credit would have to be taken up in the lame-duck session of Congress following the Nov. 6 presidential election.

“Tax policy is key to developing offshore wind,” said Christopher Long, manager of offshore wind and siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents businesses and researchers involved in the wind energy supply chain.

But some groups say the government should not be putting more money into an industry that is unproven.

John Droz, a retired North Carolina physicist and environmental activist, heads up the Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions, a coalition of about 250 groups and individuals across the U.S. advocating for more scientific research into wind power.

“No one has ever done an independent study to prove that wind power saves [carbon dioxide],” Droz said. “Our energy policies are being created by lobbyists, and there’s no science involved.”

American Wind Energy Association’s Long said that research has been conducted widely.

“For years, many [state-formed] task forces have been meeting and studying these potential sites,” Long said. “And offshore wind projects have been in the water in Europe for 20 years. A lot of studies have come from there.”

Getting wind turbines up and running off Maryland’s coast is not just a matter of raising O’Malley’s political profile, said Hultman.

“This comes down to a choice of how we want our energy system to run,” Hultman said. “And are we interested in paying a slight premium for that?”