Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a news conference at Baltimore's Inner Harbor that his staff found that no significant impact to the environment, shipping or other activities would result from letting developers start studies and plans for harnessing ocean winds from New Jersey to Virginia.
Salazar, who had pledged more than a year ago to streamline the regulatory process for putting turbines offshore, said his Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would start soliciting bids for leasing up to 80,000 acres off Maryland. Eight companies or partnerships had expressed interest in 2010.
"This is not going to be something that's going to be waiting around for multiple years," Salazar said. "We'll have those leases issued by the end of 2012."
But it is likely to be at least five years before construction begins, industry officials and supporters said, if the projects costing billions of dollars clear all of the regulatory, political and economic hurdles that lie ahead. The federal government's favorable environmental review shortened the red tape by as much as two years, they said, since a more detailed study is not needed now.
After developers sign leases with the federal government, they will be allowed to put buoys and towers offshore to measure winds and take readings needed to plan and design their projects. Before starting construction, they will have to perform detailed studies of the potential impact of the turbines on fish, birds, bats, shipping and other activities. The studies could take two years.
The area off Maryland's coast would stretch from 10 nautical miles off Ocean City to 27 nautical miles out to sea. A nautical mile is about 6,076 feet compared with a mile on land of 5,280 feet.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was on hand, called the announcement a "very positive step forward." He is counting on offshore wind to help meet Maryland's goal of obtaining 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2022.
"The energy is there," the governor said. "We need the energy. ... We need the jobs, and we need a more renewable, cleaner, greener future for our kids."
O'Malley will try to persuade Maryland lawmakers to back his most recent proposal for giving financial incentives to develop offshore wind farms. After failing to get a bill through the General Assembly last year, he has introduced one with a different approach, which would require Maryland electricity providers to get up to 2.5 percent of their power from turbines off the coast.
The governor, whose measure is scheduled for a Senate hearing Feb. 14, has noted the potential jobs that would stem from the design, construction and operation of offshore wind farms as well as its environmental benefits of producing electricity without polluting the air. Wind farms are operating now in Western Maryland.
Abigail Hopper, the governor's energy adviser, said O'Malley's legislation would call for getting power from a wind farm with a generating capacity of 310 megawatts. One or more projects that size would employ about 1,200 people for five years in manufacturing and assembling the turbines and related infrastructure, she said, then support about 250 permanent jobs maintaining the facility.
Lawmakers balked last year over requiring Maryland ratepayers pay more for their electricity to subsidize offshore wind farms. Offshore wind power could cost up to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour under the governor's bill, roughly double what Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers now pay for power produced largely by burning coal. O'Malley's bill would cap the extra cost of offshore wind at $2 a month for households.
"This is a big, complicated undertaking," the governor said, "but one we must undertake."
O'Malley said he hopes the federal government might join with the states in pledging to buy power from offshore wind farms, which would help developers secure the financing needed to go forward.
Salazar said O'Malley had telephoned Navy Secretary Ray Mabus this week to urge the service, which has bases in Virginia and Maryland, to consider such a commitment. President Barack Obama had declared in his State of the Union speech this week that the Navy would be purchasing enough clean energy to power a quarter-million homes a year, but did not provide details.
Salazar's announcement was attended by environmental activists who support offshore wind and by business representatives interested in bidding for leases or in making turbine parts and related facilities.
Among them was Prasad Karunakaran, CEO and founder of Nadicom, a new iron-casting company based in Fulton in Howard County that aims to build wind turbine components. The company is building its first manufacturing facility in Iowa to supply the booming land-based wind energy industry there, he said, but is interested in setting up operations in Maryland as well.
"We know it's five years out," Karunakaran said, "but our eyes are open to the offshore market."
The area off Maryland's coast that would be open for leasing is less than half what had originally been proposed; it was limited to avoid conflicts with shipping entering and leaving Delaware Bay. Other areas could be excluded as more detailed impact studies are done.
The draft environmental assessment issued last summer included an option for shrinking the state's offshore wind leasing area even more — by roughly 80 percent — to steer clear of other areas shippers are concerned about. The final report bypassed that option without explanation.
But Dana E. Goward, director of maritime transportation systems at the U.S. Coast Guard, said the service is still studying potential shipping issues stemming from wind turbines along the Atlantic coast and could recommend that other areas not be leased.
Bird lovers reacted cautiously to Thursday's announcement.
Kurt R. Schwarz, conservation chair for the Maryland Ornithological Society, said his group has concerns about the potential for the 400-foot tall turbines to disrupt or harm migrating birds, particularly red knots, which stop in Delaware Bay each spring on their annual flight from Brazil to Canada. Their numbers have fallen so much in recent years that they are under consideration for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Schwarz said the red knots' migration path takes them through turbine leasing areas off Maryland and Delaware.
Officials said those and other concerns must be addressed by wind developers before turbines could be built, and that the only structures being put up in the next year or two would be a handful of meteorological towers to monitor wind and weather conditions. Those towers would not pose a significant risk to birds, officials said.
Schwarz said lighting on the towers would have to be set up to avoid attracting birds, noting cases of large kills associated with lights on similar structures on land.
Schwarz said the ornithological society does not oppose offshore wind but wants officials to "proceed cautiously."