Feds approve first offshore wind farm, buoying prospects in Md.

The Obama administration's approval of the nation's first offshore wind farm near Cape Cod in Massachusetts buoys prospects for similar renewable-energy projects off Maryland's shore and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, proponents say.

But it may still be several years — if ever — before turbines are spinning wind into electricity off Ocean City, state officials note.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in Boston Wednesday that he had approved the controversial Cape Wind project, which calls for placing 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. The project's environmental, cultural and visual impacts have been hotly debated for the past nine years, since it would be placed in waters off Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island.

Maryland Energy Administration Director Malcolm Woolf called the Cape Wind decision "huge," saying it should spur the United States to place wind turbines off its shores for the first time.

"I think it is a boost to renewable energy in the nation," Woolf said, "and it will accelerate offshore wind in the Mid-Atlantic as well." But he added: "The real race is to get steel in the ground and get turbines spinning."

"It's the beginning of a process, but a very important one," said James Lanard, managing director of Deepwater Wind, an offshore developer based in Hoboken, N.J. The firm is focusing on putting turbines off Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey, but also has indicated it is studying prospects off Maryland's coast.

Offshore wind farms also have been proposed in neighboring Delaware as well as in New York. Just last week, the Interior Department invited wind developers to express interest in building off Delaware's coast, a step that could lead to leasing ocean tracts for turbines. NRG Bluewater Wind has signed a contract with Delmarva Power to supply electricity if it wins approval to build a farm off Rehoboth. Bluewater also has expressed interest in Maryland's waters.

Maryland is seeking to join the Northeast's renewable energy rush, testing industry interest while tracking wind speeds offshore and scouting for potential conflicts with fish, birds, boaters, cargo ships or military activities. The state's move has drawn little criticism so far, Woolf said.

The Department of Natural Resources, working with the Nature Conservancy, is drawing up a coastal atlas that attempts to chart both good wind sites and sensitive resources that may warrant protection from turbine construction. That atlas may be unveiled to the public in June, said Matt Fleming, director of DNR's Chesapeake and coastal programs. The early analysis suggests the strongest winds would be 10 to 15 miles offshore, but, according to DNR planner Catherine McCall, it also has pinpointed one possible spot to avoid — a cluster of cold-water corals growing on the bottom off Ocean City near the Delaware line.

State officials also held their first meeting this month with Interior officials who handle offshore leasing, according to Fleming. A federal decision on leasing waters off Maryland's coast is still years away, he said. But in the meantime, the O'Malley administration has pledged to buy up to 55 megawatts' worth of electricity from the Delaware wind farm to power state buildings. That should help make the Delaware project more economically viable, Woolf said.

"If we can get the Delaware project going, then the entire region can benefit economically, and it makes it easier to get a project in Maryland," Woolf said.

Though Europe and China have had turbines off their shores for years, marine wind projects have moved slowly in this country. Cape Wind had sparked bitter divisions, with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy among opponents of the project, which would put turbines within sight of his family's Hyannis Port compound.

But the project also drew objections from Native Americans, who considered the Nantucket Sound sacred, and from bird lovers, who worried that the turbines could harm or scare off sea ducks and cormorants.

"Cape Wind was certainly probably the most controversial location they could've picked," said Robert Johns, spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy. He contended that the government had not conducted adequate studies of turbine impacts on birds in Nantucket Sound. Bird lovers are "disappointed the first foray into offshore wind was the most controversial on the East Coast," he said.

Salazar required the developer of the $1 billion project to trim 40 turbines from the project and change their configuration so they would be less visible from the shore. But while acknowledging the concerns of history buffs and of native tribes, Salazar said he believed the nation's need for clean, secure energy took precedence.

The government's approval is almost certain to be challenged in court, delaying construction still more. Because of that, Massachusetts may not be the first state to see turbines go up off its shores. But wind proponents said the fledgling industry might have suffered a serious setback if the Obama administration had not given Cape Wind a green light, even with all the opposition it has generated.

Industry officials and pro-wind environmentalists said they hope that the prolonged Cape Wind approval will help federal and state governments to streamline their review of other offshore wind projects. And they argue that impacts of wind pale compared to the harm caused by offshore oil spills, such as the one triggered when a drilling rig off Louisiana exploded, burned and sank last week.

"The oil spill heading toward the Gulf Coast is a sad reminder that wind energy — not more oil drilling — is the way to use our coasts to power our future," Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland, said in a statement.

While it may take years to get a large-scale wind farm ready for approval off Maryland, Woolf, the state's energy director, suggested that a small-scale pilot may get the go-ahead more quickly. Marylanders have been largely supportive, he said, though he noted that public attitudes rarely crystallize until a specific project is proposed.

Though public attention has focused on large projects like Cape Wind, Lanard of Deepwater Wind suggested the first offshore wind farms to get built may be a pair of small ones — one off Bock Island in Rhode Island by his company, and another by another developer off Atlantic City in New Jersey. Each proposes only a handful of turbines, Lanard said, and would be built in state-controlled waters, eliminating the need for extensive federal reviews.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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