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Economists say Md. needs wind energy, fracking, more

Friday - 4/13/2012, 10:00am  ET

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Maryland energy policy remains in limbo, without major progress on offshore wind or hydraulic fracturing during the recently completed General Assembly session.

A bill that would have brought wind turbines to the state's Atlantic coast collapsed for a second year in a row. And hydraulic fracturing, a natural-gas extraction process commonly called fracking, is on hold while an advisory commission examines its potential impacts.

Both energy solutions inspire passion in the state's legislators. Democrats overwhelmingly support offshore wind, with its promise of long-term renewable energy, while Republicans mostly favor hydraulic fracturing's lower startup investment and quick profits.

But economists versed in energy policy argue that political bickering should not overshadow the issue at hand: Maryland needs to find new solutions for its energy future. They say the state should consider a range of resources - not just offshore wind and natural gas, but land-based wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear, too.

The state currently imports about 30 percent of the electricity it consumes, according to a Public Service Commission report. That makes Maryland the fourth largest energy importer in the nation by percentage - trailing only D.C., Virginia and Delaware.

Officials are working toward a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Calvert County, which would be the first new reactor approved in the country in a generation.

Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution's Energy Security Initiative, said polarized debate among legislators has created a false sense of having to choose between two distinct options.

"I think, on balance, it's good to have a diversified energy base," he said. He believes policymakers should be looking into both fracking and offshore wind, in addition to other energy sources.

The economic costs and benefits of each option remain contested.

Proponents of fracking say it's the better bet for the moment, with contractors eager to start tapping the vast natural gas reserves of Western Maryland's portion of the Marcellus Shale, which spans 95,000 square miles from Tennessee to New York.

Offshore wind supporters counter that wind farms, while expensive to install, will ultimately provide the state with an endless supply of low-cost, sustainable electricity.

Opponents of the wind act are concerned about hikes to Maryland ratepayers' monthly energy bills. This session's wind legislation would have capped increases at $1.50 a month per household and 1.5 percent of the total electricity bill for commercial and industrial businesses.