- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Work on long-term energy plans after deregulation will be a major focus of the upcoming session of the General Assembly, but it is still not clear exactly what lawmakers will do in response to complex generation and transmission dilemmas in the future.

Maryland is facing increasing demands for electricity, a limited supply, highly congested transmission capacity and aging infrastructure. If nothing is done, the state could face shortages resulting in rolling blackouts by 2011, according to a report last month by the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC).

“Everything is out there floating,” Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, Charles Democrat, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think there’s any one thing that is a sure-proof solution to this problem, and we’re early into this whole process.”

Mr. Middleton, whose committee will review energy legislation, said there are mostly three schools of thought in the General Assembly. One sees deregulation as a big mistake requiring reregulation to fix; another doesn’t believe deregulation can be undone; a third contends that while the state may not be able to go back to the way things used to be, there are some steps it can take to head off supply problems.

Mr. Middleton said he’s in the third camp. And Gov. Martin O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. appear poised to support some changes, too.

Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat, is confident lawmakers will be able to pass legislation to bring some relief to consumers. For example, he said something could be done to prevent utility companies from buying electricity on the market during peak periods — when it costs more. He also said lawmakers could find other ways to save money that can be passed on to consumers.

“We’re definitely going to pass legislation in terms of managing electric power,” Mr. Miller said in a recent interview. “I’m not certain if you want to call it reregulation … but certainly we can tweak the laws in a meaningful way so that we can provide some form of relief to our constituents.”

But Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican, said he doesn’t think there is much the state can do. He predicted “a lot of smoke and little fire” on the issue.

“I don’t think they can put the genie back in the bottle, number one,” Mr. Brinkley said. “And number two, as long as Maryland adheres to its very strict standards — which do not allow new generating stations — there are only two things that can happen: one is the prices will go up or there will be power brownouts or blackouts.”

Maryland deregulated the state’s electricity markets in 1999. In 2006, lawmakers held a special session to impose rate caps on a proposed 72 percent increase on Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers. After the caps expired, the PSC approved a 50-percent rate increase in May when it couldn’t find any legal means to stop it.

Rising energy prices have been on Mr. O'Malley’s mind since his campaign against then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006. Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, criticized the PSC under Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, saying regulators didn’t do nearly enough to halt the BGE rate increase. Mr. O'Malley appointed his own members to the commission, but they found there was no legal recourse to stop the rate increases.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said he thought energy would be a central issue in Annapolis for years to come.

“You have to look at ways to expand your generation of energy,” Mr. Busch said. “We’re importing 30 percent of our energy here.” Mr. Busch also said Maryland needs to examine ways of working with other states to expand transmission capability.

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