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Seven of 11 senators on the Senate Finance Committee voted in favor of a bill to incentivize the development of an offshore wind farm, catapulting the bill past a hurdle over which it has stumbled the past two years.

In previous years, the offshore wind bill, a centerpiece of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s environmental agenda, has stalled in the committee, where members raised concerns over costs to customers and whether minority businesses would have a place in the nascent wind industry.

O’Malley’s bill will allow the Public Service Commission to approve a developer to build a 200-megawatt wind farm 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City but only if that project will cost the average residential customer no more than $1.50 per month.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) rearranged committee assignments to ensure that the bill would make it out of committee, placing Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s) onto the Finance Committee and moving Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) from Finance to the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Ramirez is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Committee Chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles), who co-sponsored the bill and led it through his committee after more than two years spent working on it, expects the Senate to take up the measure following debate over legislation to repeal the death penalty, scheduled for Tuesday. Middleton said the bill is an improvement over the one that O’Malley (D) first proposed in 2011, with more consumer protections and clearer language regarding studies that must be completed to ensure the project is of economic interest. Ratepayers could see their energy bills go up as much as $1.50 month but not until the windmills actually start producing energy.

The senator expressed confidence that the bill would pass the full Senate.

“I think we’re really good,” he said.

The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative opposed the bill for the third straight year due to the “increased cost impact that it would have on our customer members,” said spokesman Tom Dennison, who also expects the bill to clear the Senate.

“From a fundamental standpoint, anytime a bill comes forward that is going to cost our customers money, we tend to oppose it on those grounds,” he added.

But the committee vote drew praise from environmental groups for its members and Middleton, in particular.

“Chairman Middleton and members of the Finance Committee crafted a policy over the last two years that works for Maryland,” Chesapeake Climate Action Network Director Mike Tidwell said in a statement. “The Maryland offshore wind bill crossed a big hurdle today on its way to creating jobs, improving public health and greatly expanding the fight against climate change. This bill will put Maryland in the forefront of the nation’s emerging offshore wind industry.”

“This is a great day for our future, for our kids and for our climate. Maryland has so much to gain by moving towards real energy solutions like offshore wind power, and we have so much to lose by not doing so,” Environment Maryland Director Tommy Landers said in the statement. “Climate change is only becoming more intense, and Maryland remains one of the most vulnerable states to its impacts. The Chesapeake Bay needs us to transition to clean energy, and so do our future generations. Many thanks to the Finance Committee, and thanks especially to Chairman Middleton for leading this bill and doing what’s right for our state and our future.”

Staff writer Jeff Newman contributed to this report. hnunn@gazette.net