Advocates of developing offshore wind power have come to Baltimore this week with optimism that they're creeping closer to putting the first turbines off the Atlantic coast, but worried that Washington could pull the plug on the fledgling industry just as it gets started.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are scheduled to open a three-day conference put on by the American Wind Energy Association. For details on the affair, go here.
Chris Long, the association's manager of offshore policy, said several federal and state government actions have buoyed the industry and sent positive signals to investors. But liftoff still has not occurred, and there are signs some may be cooling on offshore's wind potential.
On the plus side, the gears of the federal bureaucracy are creaking forward. In February, the Departments of Interior and Energy released a promised joint strategy for cutting the costs of offshore wind projects and speeding up their regulatory approval.
Then in March, Interior offered its first commercial lease of turbine sites off the Delaware coast, and in April approved a construction and operations plan for what could be the first offshore wind farm, the much-debated Cape Wind project off Nantucket's coast in Massachusetts.
Finally, last July, Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement released a mostly favorable draft environmental impact assessment for issuing offshore wind leases along the entire mid-Atlantic coast, including Maryland.
State actions also have encouraged the industry, such as O'Malley's so-far unsuccessful push to make utilities sign long-term power purchasing agreements with offsore wind developers.
But offshore wind is running into some resistance as well. The New York Power Authority voted recently to drop its plan to develop a 150-megawatt wind farm in the Great Lakes amid anxiety about the costs and the weak economy. Estimates of how much ratepayers would need to pay to subsidize the project ranged from $60 million to $100 million a year.
Meanwhile, federal subsidies for any type of "clean" energy are drawing more critical scrutiny these days on the heels of the collapse of Solyndra, the California solar manufacturer that received more than $500 million in loan guarantees.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who chairs an energy and commerce subcommittee, once supported boosting clean energy with government loan guarantees, but has since soured on the idea.
"We can't compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines," Stearns said.
Wind industry officials were quick to push back against the conventional wisdom that all of American's clean energy technology comes from overseas. While it may have been true a few years ago, it isn't now. A recent Congressional Research Service report that found the share of turbine parts made in the United States has actually grown from 25 percent in 2005 to 50 to 60 percent.
Nearly 400 U.S. manufacturing facilities produced wind turbines and components in 2010, up from as few as 30 in 2004, according ot the report. An estimated 20,000 U.S. workers were employed in the manufacturing of wind turbines in 2010.
Much of that manufacturing has located in the Midwest, where onshore turbines pepper the flat landscape. Industry officials say the mid-Atlantic could see the same job growth if offshore wind takes off.
"You go where the policies are," the wind energy association's Long said in a recent interview.
It remains to be seen whether Maryland will join Delaware and other mid-Atlantic states in adopting policies to encourage or even underwrite offshore wind. Industry officials also worry that the underlying federal support for wind could falter if Congress fails to renew wind's Production Tax Credit, which has been allowed to expire three times in the past 12 years and faces another renewal deadline next year.
Wind has managed to grow despite the lack of a stable federal policy to promote it, industry officials say, largely sustained by a patchwork of state incentives, including some in GOP-dominated states.
The future of offshore wind in Maryland may ride on what happens in the next several months, as lawmakers and O'Malley aides chew over whether to ask ratepayers to subsidize offshore turbines off Ocean City or off neighboring states. Lawmakers balked at the idea last winter, tabling it for furrther study. Supporters released a pair of polls this week suggesting that large majorities of Marylanders favor offshore wind and would even be willing to pay more ($2 a month, even) to get it going.
Meanwhile, a Maryland entrepreneur who's pursued various business and real estate ventures over the years is betting on offshore wind. John Congedo, president of AC-Wind, has teamed up with the University of Delaware to draw up plans for the state's first turbine blade manufacaturing plant in Salisbury. He's said he hopes to create 200 jobs.
(Wind turbines in the Netherlands, 2006 AP file photo)