When Maryland lawmakers return this week to a debate about offshore wind power, talk likely will focus on the minutiae of how much a subsidy for the fledgling industry will cost ratepayers.
Outside the State House, an unlikely alliance of supporters will be asking lawmakers to think bigger.
Harnessing electricity from skyscraper-like turbines, stretch-ed out in rows in the Atlantic, has proved to be an idea with magnetic appeal. It’s attracted not just environmentalists but steelworkers’ union members, health-care providers and religious groups.
“I have been working on
clean-energy issues for the last 10 years, and I have never seen an issue that mobilizes and captures the imagination of the public as much,” Mike Tidwell, president of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, recently told a gathering of green-energy financiers meeting in the District. “In offshore wind, you’ve got a solution that strikes the average person as sufficient to the scale of the problem. You’ve got something visionary, something large, something that looks and feels like the future.”
Even in deep-blue Maryland, where Democratic causes often draw mass support, the breadth and depth of grass-roots backing for offshore wind power stands out. The advocates’ message has been broadcast on billboards, carried on placards, talked about in small groups, even inscribed on Jewish holiday cards to state lawmakers.
If Gov. Martin O’Malley’s controversial plan to require ratepayers to subsidize development of an offshore wind farm passes, the calls, e-mails and visits from members of this unique coalition will have played no small part.
Much of the support has been corralled by advocacy organizations, including Tidwell’s Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Physicians for Social Responsibility and — playing a larger role in this year’s debate — Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a nondenominational group of churchgoers focused on fighting climate change.
After the General Assembly shelved a similar proposal from O’Malley (D) last year, the groups began focusing on key lawmakers and reaching out to organizations they thought might hold sway with the undecided.
One lawmaker who was unconvinced last year was Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who sits on a key committee that will decide whether to advance the governor’s bill this session.
Earlier this month, Kramer, who is Jewish, received a card for the Jewish holiday Tu b’Shevat that read, in part, “Thank you for your support of wind power and renewable energy in Maryland.”
The card came from Kayamut Sustainability Circle, a group of Jewish activists in Montgomery County for whom the offshore wind debate marks a transition from small-scale advocacy to involvement in state politics.
The group meets monthly in the Silver Spring community of Kemp Mill to discuss environmentally friendly practices. Organizers from Interfaith Power and Light recently began attending. They mentioned to the circle’s founder, Evonne Marzouk, that Kramer, who represents her district, could play an important role in the offshore wind debate.
Marzouk took it as an opportunity to expand her group’s mission. “Now, not only could we make a difference in our personal lives, we could make a difference for Maryland,” she said.
A recent Washington Post poll partially explains the swell of grass-roots support.
A majority of respondents — 55 percent — support efforts to jump-start the offshore wind-power industry in Maryland, even if that means increases of a couple of dollars a month in residential utility bills.
Under the governor’s plan, residential ratepayers would begin paying about $2 more per month in 2017 to subsidize generation of a power plant’s worth of offshore wind power.
O’Malley says the $2 per month — and a 2.5-percent increase for the state’s largest commercial and industrial businesses — would be a small price for what his administration calculates as the potential benefits: 1,800 new construction jobs, increased electricity production and reduced air pollution.
The plan remains a tough sell among lawmakers, however. Last week, O’Malley fielded questions for nearly an hour from Republican and Democratic members of a Senate committee who said they were concerned the plan would cost customers too much and leave too much power in the hands of regulators handpicked by O’Malley to structure the plan to guarantee a private developer a profit so that it can secure Wall Street financing.
Others said another $2 seemed over the top in combination with O’Malley’s proposals to raise income taxes on six-figure earners; add sales tax to gasoline purchases, which could add about 18 cents to the cost per gallon; and roughly double homeowners’ so-called “flush tax.”
Outside the State House, supporters were undeterred.