Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Weâ€™ll look back one day with astonishment at the face masks and home schooling and death counts, for sure. But the novel coronavirus will also leave this memory: the long lines. Lines for the grocery store, the bank, the hardware store.
And, of course, lines for free food. Iâ€™ll never forget the helicopter shot of thousands of Marylanders wrapped around a MegaMart store in April, whole families anxious for food vouchers.
But thereâ€™s one more line that Marylanders might not know about. Itâ€™s been created by state regulators who are effectively denying or delaying the flow of jobs that could go to these same hard-hit people. In times of crisis, we need the government to stimulate economic growth. And polls show that â€śgreenâ€ť job expansion through clean energy is a priority for Marylanders.
So why in the world has the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) allowed a little-known-agency, the Power Plant Research Program (PPRP), to create a line as far as the eye can see for companies wanting to build solar farms in the state? Even before the coronavirus, there were more than 40 solar projects in various stages of â€śshovel readinessâ€ť tied up in PPRP analysis and red tape. That tape has led to redundant hearings, arbitrary delays and more. Indeed, it now takes 1.5 years on average to get a solar farm approved in the state. The wait is longer than in most states and is undoubtedly discouraging new companies from coming here.
Solar power creates three times as many jobs per dollar spent as fossil fuel investments. It can also produce badly needed tax revenue for county budgets devastated by the pandemic. Solar farms help clean up dirty air as well, a common aggravating factor in covid-19 deaths nationwide.
So whatâ€™s causing the wrap-around-the-block line for solar companies? The PSCâ€™s defenders suggest responsibility lies with the PPRP itself and local zoning concerns. But a recent ruling by the stateâ€™s highest court clarified that the buck stops with the PSC. The commission alone, the court ruled, has final authority to wade through local feedback and overlapping regulatory input on the road to a final decision on a proposed solar farm. Itâ€™s time, in other words, for the stateâ€™s five PSC commissioners â€” all appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) â€” to get on with it.
The issue, however, is not just solar. The PSC is also pondering approval of a 70-megawatt wind farm proposed for Allegany County in Western Maryland. The project, proposed nearly 20 years ago, would sit atop an area partly strip-mined for coal. It would create $1 million in annual tax revenue for the hard-hit county government. The PSC will decide soon whether to greenlight this economic shot in the arm or throw it back into regulatory purgatory.
Finally, and most ironic, there is the issue of offshore wind farms off the coast of Ocean City. To its credit, the PSC approved two pioneering wind farms in 2017 that would be 17 miles or more off the coast. But now, at the request of Ocean City leaders with strong political ties to Hogan, the PSC has announced it will hold still more evidentiary hearings related to these farms. The concern, of all things, is the visual impact on tourism of the barely visible wind turbines. The energy companies have proposed building far fewer turbines while making them 25 percent taller. The turbines would be tiny in the distance, nearly impossible to see from shore during hazy summer months. The new PSC hearings are a needless distraction.
Then thereâ€™s President Trump. Last month, 60 Maryland lawmakers sent an urgent letter to the PSC asking the commissioners to please, please stop pro-Trump federal regulators from delaying offshore wind even more. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, now a radically pro-fossil fuel body, is imposing arbitrary federal rules on Maryland to stifle clean power. But the Maryland PSC, the lawmakers argue, has the legal power to fight back with creative counter moves. Two thousand offshore wind jobs and 400 megawatts of ocean-based power now rest on whether the PSC will defy Trump extremists during this economic crisis.
Marylanders have waited long enough for offshore wind, onshore wind and utility-scale solar farms. The direct jobs and tax revenue are needed ASAP. And the â€śmultiplier effectâ€ť of indirect jobs is exactly what can stimulate a stagnant economy. Under the stateâ€™s Clean Energy Jobs Act passed in 2019, many of these energy projects will also lead to apprenticeships, incentives and other support for businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans.
Why should we stand in line one more day for better health, cleaner air and sustainable jobs? The Maryland PSC has a legal and moral responsibility to act right now.
Read more: Gerald Stansbury: Climate change is hitting African Americans hard. Hereâ€™s how Maryland can lead. Marc Elrich and Lorig Charkoudian: Maryland should put power in the hands of communities Mike Tidwell: Continuing Marylandâ€™s energy boom Kristin Cook and Mike Tidwell: If Larry Hogan wants to be a climate hero, he should sign the Clean Energy Jobs Act