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The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Tuesday began seeking proposals from developers that want to build commercial wind farms off the Massachusetts coast, even before construction has begun on the Cape Wind project.
The bureau is looking for developers interested in leases on the Outer Continental Shelf off Massachusetts. The 3,000-square mile area of federal waters begins approximately 14 miles south of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
Gov. Deval Patrick's administration said the initiative could produce 4,000 megawatts of wind energy, enough to power 1.7 million homes. That's about nine times as much energy as the Cape Wind project is expected to produce and about equal to the electricity generated by all the coal-fired plants in the state, officials said.
The federal initiative will help take the offshore wind energy industry in the U.S. "from infancy to maturity," said Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles.
"Massachusetts is, and will be, the nation's offshore wind leader," said Bowles, who is stepping down at the end of the December.
Sue Reid, incoming director of the Conservation Law Foundation-Massachusetts said any push for offshore wind farms has to be balanced against potential costs to the environment and other ocean uses.
"There is certainly a sense of urgency of tapping into this clean energy resource," she said. "At the same time it's going to be very important to thoroughly vet the project sites to minimize impacts on natural resources and other uses like commercial fishing and shipping."
The hurdles are still high for offshore wind energy - including finding utilities willing to buy the energy at a high enough cost to make the projects profitable.
Cape Wind, the nation's first offshore wind farm, signed up its first buyer when the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities approved a deal to sell half its power to National Grid, the state's largest electric utility.
Under the 15-year agreement, National Grid will pay 18.7 cents per kilowatt hour for Cape Wind power beginning in 2013, with a 3.5 percent annual increase. The starting price is twice what National Grid pays today for power from fossil fuels.
The extra costs could push up residential customers' bills by 1.7 percent.
The other half of the Cape Wind project's electricity remains up for grabs with no obvious takers.
One reason for the higher prices is the cost of building and maintaining giant turbines in an unforgiving ocean environment. Cape Wind, which will generate an estimated 468-megawatts, is expected to cost $2 billion to build.
The project has already won federal approval and hopes to be operating by early 2013. The 130-turbine project will be located in Nantucket Sound five miles off Mashpee on Cape Cod and nine miles off Martha's Vineyard.
State and federal officials say they're working to bring down the cost of offshore wind power to increase its appeal to developers.
Bowles said the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center will provide matching funds to researchers and developers to help achieve a goal of reducing the cost of offshore wind by 40 percent by end of this decade and 60 percent by 2030.
There are other potential hurdles.
The Cape Wind projects battled lawsuits and fierce opposition from fishermen, Indian tribes and Cape Cod residents before finally winning the right to build. Other projects could face similar opposition depending on their size and location.
Still, offshore wind supporters say there are big rewards including a sustainable source of energy and the creation of a domestic energy industry.
The US Department of Energy has projected the offshore wind industry could create 43,000 jobs nationally by 2020.
Massachusetts may soon have company in the offshore wind race.
Earlier this month a renewable energy company proposed what it said would be the largest offshore wind farm in the United States: a 200-turbine, 1,000-megawatt project off the coast of Rhode Island that would provide power to multiple states along the East Coast.
Deepwater Wind LCC, which recently moved its headquarters to Providence, has submitted an application for the project, estimated to cost between $4 billion to $5 billion, to the U.S. Department of the Interior to lease the site where it plans to build the wind farm.
It hopes to begin construction in 2014 and have the first turbines in operation by the end of 2015.
This program aired on December 28, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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