ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Martin O’Malley’s offshore wind energy bill is on its way to his desk for a signature, having passed in the House in February and in the Senate on Friday.
Five friendly Senate amendments are expected to be approved easily by the House.
The new legislation will funnel $1.7 billion of ratepayer subsidies over a 20-year period toward the construction of a wind power farm 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City as early as 2017.
“It’s about a better Maryland for tomorrow,” said Sen. James Mathias Jr., D-Worcester, the former mayor of Ocean City, who changed his vote to support the bill.
O’Malley’s previous two attempts to push the legislation – the first more ambitious – never made it to the Senate floor largely because of concerns about the cost to Marylanders.
His first initiative also failed because utility companies would have had to make nearly 20-year commitments to buy offshore wind energy.
But a change in the makeup of the Senate Finance Committee, which held up the bill in years past, brought an important vote in favor of offshore wind, said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles, chair of the committee.
This year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., removed wind bill opponent Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, from the Senate Finance Committee.
In his place, he put Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, a supporter.
In the final Senate vote Friday, Muse voted for the bill.
A provision that would encourage minority enterprise business goals for developers brought another pro-wind vote to the committee, Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore.
But the bill did not pass without debate and attempted amendments.
“This is the dumbest idea ever,” said Sen. E. J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, who led the debate against it.
Cost was one of his main concerns, both the cost to ratepayers and the cost that he said would pass down to consumers via businesses paying more on their electricity bills.
“Never in Maryland’s history have so many people paid so much for the benefit of so few,” Pipkin said.
Under the new legislation, the average residential household will pay $1.50 a month in subsidies, a consumption-based cost for 1,000 kilowatt-hours of usage. The fee will not kick in until wind is produced.
But the residential rate could rise and fall depending on the price of electricity, Middleton told the Senate in Thursday’s debate.
“If the price of electricity goes up, that $1.50 will go down,” Middleton said. The Public Service Commission will only accept a developer if the projected charge to the average residential user is no more than $1.50.
There are caps on how much agricultural and industrial energy-users will pay, but the Senate rejected an amendment that would have created a cap for commercial businesses as well.
“The increased expense on small business and to the industrial customer is going to get passed along to the consumer,” Pipkin said.
He also argued that Maryland should meet its renewable energy requirements with less expensive energy.
“This is the world’s most expensive energy,” Pipkin said.
The bill requires that the Public Service Commission only accept wind farm developer applications if they demonstrate positive economic, environmental and health benefits to the state.