Donald Fry: Wind power has potential in Maryland, but solar emerges as early renewable option

By Donald Fry

The prospect of Maryland developing offshore wind power received media attention this week when the Obama administration approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm near Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

While this lifted the spirits of wind-power advocates in our state who are seeking development of a wind farm offshore from Ocean City, the reality is that a significant renewable energy impact from Maryland offshore facilities remains far away, experts say.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen in the next five years,” wind-power expert Kevin Rackstraw, principal for Rackstraw Consulting, LLC, told participants at a recent Greater Baltimore Committee symposium on renewable energy.

Substantial permitting, policy, and infrastructure issues must be overcome before Maryland will benefit from offshore wind power, Rackstraw and other event participants noted.

“Offshore wind is the final frontier, from my perspective,” said Malcolm Woolf, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

Maryland has outstanding offshore wind, and the state is in the process of compiling an atlas of potential sites for generators. But the permitting process to lease offshore sites from the federal government could take up to nine years – a time frame that state officials will work to try to shorten to “something much more manageable,” said Woolf.

Meanwhile, two years after Maryland lawmakers set a new goal to get 20 percent of our state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2022, solar energy is emerging as the early front-runner alternative technology of choice.

Why solar? Experts who spoke at the GBC symposium cited several reasons. Good solar energy technology and hardware is widely available, is more cost-effective, and is easily deployable to a broad base of consumers, said Michael D. Smith, senior vice president for green initiatives at Constellation Energy.

A key advantage is that solar equipment can be effectively deployed on both small and large scales and has few moving parts.

Constellation Energy is among companies that are aggressively building a base of solar energy customers who make “power purchase agreements.” The utility installs and owns solar equipment in residential and business settings and the customer agrees to buy from the utility the power generated by the solar equipment.

Such deals deliver immediate savings to customers, and excess energy produced by solar equipment can be sold back to utilities, said Smith.

Federal and state renewable energy tax credits on installation costs produce further savings for power purchase agreement installers or others who purchase and install solar equipment.

In Maryland solar equipment is currently being installed at single family homes, as well as businesses as large as McCormick and Company – not to mention state government buildings, which are slated for a significant amount of solar energy installations.

Maryland is one of only four states with effective, specific policies already in place to promote the use of solar energy, Smith said.

One of them is “Project Sunburst,” a Maryland Energy Administration program that provides grants of $1,000 per kilowatt to companies that perform solar energy installations on local government buildings through power purchase agreements. These grants further buy down the cost of the installation.

Private companies are also devoting significant attention and investment to projects relating to wind energy, biofuels and electric vehicles, to name a few. But the science, technology, infrastructure, and government policies for these alternatives are in earlier stages of development than for solar.

Below are more details on wind power and on other renewable energy sources.

Wind power. So-called “good wind” is only available in Maryland’s mountains and offshore. In addition to location and permitting issues for both offshore and onshore sites, wind proponents must also address the need for transmission lines to deliver existing and future wind energy to customers.

Infrastructure issues relating to wind energy are problematic, according to Rackstraw. “Maryland is a complicated state to build large projects,” he said. “It’s a very messy process, and if somebody wants to gum it up, they can.”

Biofuels. Researchers are vigorously working with fuel sources ranging from plant oils to animal fats to develop a number of new biofuel molecules, said Connie Lausten, vice president of regulatory and legislative affairs at New Generation Biofuels. Her company, which has a facility at Curtis Bay, focuses on developing and producing alternative fuels for commercial and industrial heating applications and electricity.

Federal mandates for producing alternatives to petroleum are currently the major driver of the biofuels market. There are a myriad of developing technologies to produce a wide variety of biofuels. But the biggest challenge for biofuel developers is how government tax credit and incentive policies are written, said Lausten.

For instance, many innovative biofuel molecules being developed don’t precisely fit narrow government criteria for tax credits and incentives. Currently, government policy forces “are really more against new technologies, and propping up that which is already in place,” Lausten said.

Policy makers will have to address the question of whether incentive policies adequately promote the development of new technologies that produce better biofuels, she says

Electric vehicles. During the 2010 General Assembly session, lawmakers passed legislation waiving up to a $2,000 in excise taxes on the purchase of an electric vehicle. The state also has $1 million in stimulus-funded grant money to help build public facilities for recharging electric cars or trucks.

The effort is intended to help the public feel comfortable buying electric vehicles by making public recharging facilities available around the state, said the Maryland Energy Administration’s Malcolm Woolf. State officials are reviewing grant applications that were due two weeks ago and will get a sense of the potential facilities and locations that can be achieved.

Advocates and industry experts are clearly enthusiastic about these and other renewable energy developments that are percolating in Maryland. We are getting encouraging glimpses of progress. “We’re at the cusp of a real transition in Maryland,” said Woolf.

But to put these emerging efforts into perspective, currently less than 6 percent of Maryland’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Our renewable future shows potential, but we’ve got a long way to go.

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