The government could issue leases for four new East Coast wind farms by year's end as part of a streamlined approval process designed to quickly identify the nation's most promising areas for offshore wind energy, the U.S. Department of the Interior said Monday.
The U.S. Department of Energy also said it intends to spend more than $50 million over the next five years to speed development of the farms and help meet President Barack Obama's goal of generating 80 percent of the nation's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.
The Interior Department said the four sites it has identified as ripe for development are off the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Ocean Conservancy lauded the Obama administration for moving quickly to develop wind power, while some Republicans said the president's efforts don't go far enough to address the nation's energy problems.
"It's unwise for the Obama administration to exclusively focus on developing offshore wind in the Atlantic while ignoring the need for expanded oil and natural gas production," House Natural Resources Committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement.
The four states will receive expedited environmental reviews to help fast-track the projects, which are expected to create thousands of jobs.
"We applaud the decision to substantially shorten the permitting process in a way that will allow project developers to attract the investment necessary to support offshore wind projects," Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said in a statement.
In November, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed to spur offshore wind projects in the Atlantic Ocean by expediting permits and identifying promising areas for wind power to avoid potential conflicts.
Calls to streamline the process came after an eight-year review that finally resulted in a lease for the nation's first wind farm, off the coast of Massachusetts, being signed in October.
The Cape Wind project there faced opposition from two Indian tribes, some environmentalists and residents, who argued it threatened marine life as well as maritime traffic and industry. They also said the windmills could mar the ocean view.
Construction on the 130-turbine project is expected to begin later this year with operations starting in 2013. It will be located in Nantucket Sound five miles off Mashpee on Cape Cod and nine miles off Martha's Vineyard.
Each of the four sites identified Monday are off major tourist destinations, including Atlantic City, N.J., Ocean City, Md., and Virginia Beach, Va.
However, Salazar said the wind farms would be between 10 to 20 miles offshore — far enough that beachgoing vacationers wouldn't have their views ruined.
Providence, R.I.-based Deepwater Wind CEO William Moore, who wants to develop wind farms in New Jersey and Rhode Island, said the turbines he's planning would be as high as 500 feet above the water.
"At 20 miles they are largely invisible," he said. "I think under ideal atmospheric conditions, you might be able to see a speck in the horizon."
But ruining the view isn't the only concern. The Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy fears federal officials are moving so fast to develop wind power they won't consider the safety of migratory birds or their nesting grounds when approving leases. The biggest worry is birds hitting the turbines.
"Those birds will never be found and we really won't have a good estimate of how many birds are killed," said Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy for the group.
Potential wind project sites off New England will be identified in March. Sites in the south Atlantic states, primarily in the Carolinas, will be identified this spring.
States would receive 27 percent of total revenues collected by the federal government for projects in federal waters, at least 3 miles offshore.
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