By AMANDA YEAGER
ANNAPOLIS (February 14, 2012)—Depending on who you ask, John Congedo has poured his energy and savings either into one of Maryland's most promising sources of economic growth or a boondoggle that would raise energy bills and squander billions of the state's money.
Congedo is president of AC Wind, a company poised to benefit from the newest iteration of Gov. Martin O'Malley's offshore wind farming bill. A similar bill collapsed last year amid concerns about increased energy bills for consumers and expensive long-term contracts for utilities.
O'Malley and wind farming supporters are hopeful the new bill, which would instead create incentives by selling wind power at competitive prices and including renewable-energy credits with its purchase, has a better chance of passing. The governor testified in favor of the bill before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.
Congedo is taking his plans full steam ahead. The owner of a construction supplies manufacturing company for 25 years, he saw fellow businesses fall apart when the recession hit the industry.
He started AC Wind in 2009 after studying the renewable energy sector and concluding that wind farming had substantial potential for growth and job production - the golden ticket the state is looking for to help revive a struggling economy.
When he talks about wind farming, his voice becomes animated.
"Maryland sits right in the catbird seat (for offshore wind farming)," he said, adding that if the state doesn't invest in the industry, one of its neighbors will. Last year, AC Wind found a headquarters in Salisbury at the former site of a boat construction plant owned by U.S. Marine, which employed 700 workers between its two factories in the state before it shut down.
Congedo's dream is to get those jobs back. He plans on using the plant to manufacture large-scale windmill parts: blades, cells and hubs, which can weigh a few tons. He said his business, which currently has about eight employees and another eight subcontractors, has gotten hundreds of job applications already.
"It's the most gut-wrenching thing you could imagine. A man was in here the other day. He said, 'I worked here 12 years, my career was here. I'll come back here, I'll do anything,'" Congedo said.
Congedo estimates that AC Wind could bring up to 500 jobs over a four-and-a-half year period to Salisbury, which had an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in November - higher than the state's rate of 6.9 percent. That's in addition to other employment opportunities that would be created by the factory's output.
Truck drivers and mariners would be needed to transport materials, for example.
"Our job impact across the board could represent thousands when it's over with," he said.
According to a U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy lab report, building a 500 megawatt wind farm could create as many as 2,000 manufacturing and construction jobs over a five-year period, as well as 400 long-term jobs. Based on testimony from last year's wind farm bill, Maryland's coast has the capacity to generate 400 to 600 megawatts of wind energy in the near term, compared to 400 megawatts in Delaware and 1,050 megawatts in New Jersey.
A 500 megawatt wind farm could supply power to 79 percent of all homes on the Eastern Shore, or more than half the homes in Baltimore, according to estimates from the Maryland Energy Administration.
Wind farms have not yet been built off American coasts, so employment estimates are just projections. But wind farming supporters point to the positive economic impact the industry has had on European countries that have invested in offshore wind energy.
By 2030, there will be 215,000 Europeans employed in the offshore wind farming sector, according to the European Wind Energy Association. Currently, there are 53 windmill developments off the coast of 10 European countries, including Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
But wind farming opponents are skeptical about the actual potential for job creation. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, the Senate minority leader, said the bill was "tilting at windmills."
"The idea of green jobs is a myth for windmills," he said, calling the proposals "just a transfer of ratepayers' money."
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, echoed Pipkin's concerns about whether the state should invest in wind farming in the current economy. He said his constituents couldn't afford to see energy bills go up.
"In these tight economic times, people on fixed incomes can't afford an increase (in rates), so any proposal that has a subsidy will have a hard time passing," he said.
Colburn also pointed to the failure of Bluewater Wind, an offshore wind energy developer, to secure funding for a project off the coast of Delaware. The project, the first in the nation for offshore wind energy, fell through due to investor worries about shaky support for federal wind power subsidies in Congress.
And skeptics question whether most of the new jobs would go to Marylanders.
A report from Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore-based economic and policy consulting firm, suggested that much of the money invested in windmills could go out of state, to places like Newport News, Va., where there are already facilities in place to accommodate construction of the massive turbines, switches and transformers. It also argued that the specialized marine wind turbine construction jobs would go to technicians from the offshore oil and gas industries, who migrate from state to state to find work.
Pipkin said operating an offshore wind farm involves "a certain amount of manufacturing expertise" that Maryland businesses do not yet have.
"There's a lot of hopes and dreams," he said, "(but) these businesses won't happen in Maryland and we don't have that kind of money (to subsidize them)."
But Delegate Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, the bill's sponsor in the House, said officials were doing everything possible to make sure new jobs stayed in Maryland.
He pointed out that a typical turbine is composed of about 8,000 parts, many of which are small and could be built by local manufacturers. And he said local large-scale manufacturers, like AC Wind and R.G. Steel in Baltimore County, could take on the bigger jobs.
For Congedo, offshore wind farming and the jobs it could create is a matter of not only local, but national pride.
"We're going to provide a home-grown, affordable solution using American ingenuity, American labor and American products to help in this energy revolution," he said.