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A large area off the coast of Massachusetts is being opened up for commercial wind energy leases, Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday.
The proposed area is more than 742,000 acres, or more than 1,160 square miles. That's larger than the land area of Rhode Island and will nearly double the federal offshore acreage available for commercial-scale wind energy projects.
The area is about 12 miles offshore, south of Martha's Vineyard, and will be auctioned as four leases, which officials hope to sell before the end of the year. Fourteen offshore wind energy companies have already expressed interest in the leases and that number could grow, Jewell said.
Jewell said federal officials have learned from the hurdles that have faced Cape Wind, the first-in-the-nation offshore wind farm slated to be built in Nantucket Sound.
The Cape Wind project, which would be closer to shore, has been in the works for more than a dozen years and has faced opposition and lawsuits. Jewell said federal regulators tried to outline areas that would generate energy without generating intense opposition.
"We put in zones that we believe have both high potential and lower conflict," Jewell said. "But it's going to actually get down to a specific construction plan on a specific site and (an environmental) analysis to determine what people want to do economically and what that impact is going to be."
How many wind turbines will be built is unclear, although Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acting Director Walter Cruickshank said there's potential in the area for "a few hundred turbines."
Cruickshank also said if turbines are built right at the boundary - 12 miles off Martha's Vineyard and 13 miles off Nantucket - they would be visible on a clear day. He said turbines would not be built at the boundary's edge, however.
Federal regulators have already determined "no reasonably foreseeable significant impacts" are expected to occur as a result of issuing wind energy leases.
So far the government has awarded five commercial wind energy leases off the Atlantic Coast, including Cape Wind and an area off Delaware. Two competitive leases also have been awarded in the Massachusetts-Rhode Island area and Virginia.
Tuesday's announcement triggers a 60-day public comment period ending on August 18. Comments will be considered before the publication of the final sale notice, setting the time and date of the lease sale.
Patrick said offshore wind power is a potential boon for Massachusetts, which has no oil or coal reserves.
"We sit at the end of the energy pipeline and we are held in some sense hostage to the fossil fuel roller-coaster," he said. "Offshore wind ... represents an opportunity to create our own Massachusetts-made energy."
Patrick said his administration has been trying to position Massachusetts as "a hub of offshore wind," pointing to the construction of a marine commerce terminal in New Bedford, which he called a first-in-the-nation facility to support the construction and deployment of offshore wind.