In this July 27, 2006, file photo, wind turbines are seen in Dronten, the… (Peter Dejong/ASSOCIATED…)
After years of trying, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is poised to win approval from state lawmakers in the coming weeks for a field of towering windmills in the Atlantic Ocean.
But the tortured process of garnering support has left O’Malley (D) with a project so small — one able to generate just half the energy of a single power plant — that developers and banks probably won’t take the financial risk, experts predict.
That would leave Maryland in the same position as several other states, including Virginia, whose plans for offshore wind projects have been stalled by bureaucratic, financial and legal challenges. Not a single wind farm has been built in the Atlantic, although at least six have been proposed.
In Maryland, developers say they don’t think they could get necessary financing because the project would be too costly, given its reduced size and the scaled-back subsidy from Maryland households.
Peter Mandelstam, a leading offshore wind developer, said that despite O’Malley’s commitment, the finances of the governor’s plan “may make it difficult or, in a worse-case scenario, impossible to build a project off the coast of Maryland.”
Nationally, offshore wind energy has for years drawn widespread support among environmentalists and others, who say that it is a sustainable alternative to coal and gas. But it has proven enormously difficult to get the nascent wind industry up and going.
In Virginia, the state legislature in 2010 established an offshore wind development authority, but no subsidy program. The federal government expects to soon auction off an area about 27 miles off of Virginia Beach for turbines. But without billions in tax incentives or a subsidy to get the project rolling, regulators expect it will be a decade before a project comes to fruition.
O’Malley has rejected dire predictions that Maryland’s offshore wind project will never be built and has continued to push for the legislation.
But in announcing his third attempt to pass offshore wind legislation late last month, the governor acknowledged the difficulties that remain before his vision is a reality.
“There’s a saying in the Koran that everything is possible in God’s time, but nothing is for sure,” he said in response to a question about whether the project could begin in 2017, as his bill allows.
To win support from some lawmakers, O’Malley has embraced a financing model involving renewable energy credits that is unproven in the risky realm of offshore wind. To win over others, he has limited the cost of the subsidy to about $1.50 a month per household. The subsidy will amount to $1.7 billion over 20 years, in 2012 dollars.
Developers and industry analysts say those and other concessions will make the project reliant on further federal tax incentives or help from other states to make it profitable.
O’Malley’s initial plan was introduced just weeks after he was decisively reelected in 2010. Haggling over the issue drained some of the momentum from the start of his second term, and lawmakers declined to even bring it to a vote.
Analysts said at the time that the governor’s proposed subsidy to the industry would cost ratepayers twice as much as his staff had suggested to lawmakers.
Coming from O’Malley, who first won the governor’s office on a promise to lower residents’ electricity bills, the rate increase was seen as a reversal. Lawmakers also grew skeptical after learning that O’Malley’s former chief of staff was involved in one of eight bids to become the developer and get the subsidy.
To assuage concerns raised by utilities, O’Malley jettisoned a revenue model that banks rely on to fund nearly all on-land U.S. wind energy projects: a process that requires energy providers to purchase wind energy at a price set high enough for developers to turn a profit.
Maryland would instead insert itself in the process of buying and selling renewable energy credits, a subsidy method largely untested on such a large scale.
In addition, to secure what might be crucial votes from a handful of African American lawmakers, the governor added millions in costs to help minority businesses gain a foothold in the industry.
At a news conference O’Malley called last month to announce his latest legislation, the governor painted a picture of a field of giant windmills, each as tall as the Washington Monument, rising 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City.
The site of the windmills — the tips of which might barely be seen from shore — would become a bustling construction area, employing more than 800 people. When built, he said, the project would be like a gleaming beacon for the state’s fight against climate change.
But when pressed by reporters, O’Malley acknowledged that he is now less optimistic that offshore wind development could begin as quickly as he hoped.