Maryland's Renewable Energy Goals Feasible, But Not Without Obstacles


ANNAPOLIS (March 19, 2010)—Maryland has an ambitious goal of producing 20 percent of its electricity with renewable resources by 2022.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as energy companies, agree that it's important to bring the renewable energy market to Maryland. But some say the high cost of renewable energy production, the inefficiency of some systems and even potential obstructions to national security might create problems down the road.

Maryland is one of 33 states with established renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS), and each of those states has a goal or mandate to increase reliance on renewable resources. Over the next 15 years, states with renewable standards are looking to produce 4 to 30 percent of their electricity from sources such as wind, solar and biomass.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has made the advancement of Maryland's renewable energy industry a top priority this legislative session, stressing the potential of widespread job creation to promote development. He's working closely with the Maryland Energy Administration to attract energy companies that could make the state a national leader in renewable energy production.

Christina Twomey, director of communications for the energy administration, said O'Malley's initiative will do two things, put more clean energy on the grid and create "green jobs" for Maryland workers.

"We really see ourselves as a true leader among other states," Twomey said. "It's an absolute necessity, especially when we continue to look at what is going on at the national level with green energy and green jobs."

The O'Malley Administration is sponsoring a four-bill, renewable energy package that uses job creation and tax credits as incentives to utilize renewable resources. The energy agenda, which Twomey calls a "four pronged approach," aims to create 100,000 new green jobs by 2015.

But developing the renewable energy market requires money, something increasingly hard to come by in the down economy.

Last month, the Maryland Energy Administration allocated $1.3 million in federal stimulus money to four Maryland energy companies as part of the state's Clean Energy Economic Development Initiative. The O'Malley Administration also supports a $2,000 tax credit for individuals or businesses that purchase plug-in cars, a measure that could take revenue from the state's transportation trust fund.

Cost aside, the O'Malley Administration's most difficult alternative energy battle could be trying to break the state's perennial wind farm resistance. A February report issued by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation found offshore wind farms could produce as much as two-thirds of the electricity currently consumed in Maryland.

Five companies have expressed interest in developing wind farms off the coast of Maryland, but current law prohibits the construction of energy lines necessary to connect wind farms to the state's energy grid.

O'Malley has sponsored a bill that would allow the Public Service Commission to award energy companies certificates enabling them to construct submerged energy lines off the coast, but some legislators are concerned offshore wind farms could affect military operations.

Sen. George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore, noted the tendency of wind turbines to interfere with radars at a hearing for O'Malley's offshore wind legislation, saying they could be problematic for the Naval Air Systems Command's Patuxent River Headquarters in St. Mary's. A 2008 MITRE Corp. study funded by the Department of Homeland Security found that aging radar systems run a risk of mistaking wind farms for airplanes or weather.

The Navy has not publically opposed wind farms off the coast of Maryland and numerous attempts to contact officials at the Naval Air System's Patuxent River Headquarters were unsuccessful.

Stephen Smith, the owner of Solvida Energy Group, an energy consulting company in the San Francisco Bay Area, says Maryland's energy goals are manageable with the right approach.

"It's going to require a concerted effort," Smith said. "Utilizing state-owned sites in tandem with private sectors."

Smith says a 20 percent requirement is common among states with renewable energy standards. He also believes solar energy production alone, if done correctly, can meet the state's renewable energy electricity requirements by 2022.

"If the policies are put in place and backed up with action on the municipal and local levels, as well as endorsed by the state government, 20 percent is feasible," Smith said.

Maryland's renewable portfolio standards state that 10 percent of the electricity produced by renewable resources should come from solar energy by 2022.

In February, Delegate C. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick, introduced a bill that would require electricity providers to generate 30 percent of their solar renewable energy from "small solar generators" by 2020. The bill would ensure solar power is generated from large and small sites of both state and private ownership, which is known as a distributive generation approach.

"If we do the policy correctly, we can enable the industry to take off," Hecht said.

The 2010 Maryland Energy Outlook report, produced by the Maryland Energy Administration, says the state is underutilizing solar energy potential. Hecht believes current renewable energy laws are too narrow and thinks the Administration's bills will aid the growth of the green industry.

"I think we have so many tools there to help the industry move forward," Hecht said. "As a legislature we should help them."

Support for O'Malley's energy agenda is not limited to Democrats.

Delegate Susan L. M. Aumann, R-Baltimore County, credits the Maryland Energy Administration with bringing in innovative companies enthusiastic about expanding Maryland's renewable energy industry.

"So many new things are coming about," Aumann said. "I do think the goal for 2022 is within reach."

Aumann recently sat next to an energy administrator from San Diego on a flight home from Florida. Aumann said the homes in the administrator's county produce more solar-powered electricity than they can use, enabling the homes to put energy on the state's grid.

Aumann was encouraged by that information and thinks current legislation that would give credits to consumers who invest in solar energy will help Maryland do the same.

"Now credits are going down to the consumer, which I think is good," Aumann said.

The Maryland coal industry does not want to be forgotten in the clean energy discussion. The Maryland Coal Association believes coal provides skilled workers with a number of high paying jobs that produce energy at a lower cost.

"When you look at the cost of a windmill for instance, there are fewer jobs and they aren't as high paying," said Adrienne Ottaviani, executive director of the Maryland Coal Association.

Ottaviani said coal miners in Garrett County make salaries of $50,000 to $60,000, some of the highest in the area.

Ottaviani also said people often think coal can't be "clean energy," when it has the capabilities of having some of the lowest emission levels.

"Coal is an abundant natural resource that is a low cost energy source," Ottaviani said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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