WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday approved the nation's first offshore wind farm, the 130-turbine Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, Mass., and said that the power of strong winds over the Atlantic Ocean would be an important part of the U.S. drive to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
European countries have been building offshore wind farms for 20 years, and China is building its first, off Shanghai. Other U.S. states along the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes also are looking into building wind farms to produce large amounts of electricity.
The Cape Wind project, however, has been hung up for nine years as opponents — landowners, two Native American tribes and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — objected to its cost and its impact on views.
Although Cape Wind's fate is not related to other proposed U.S. offshore wind farms, many wind energy supporters hailed the decision as a good sign for the future of renewable energy development. The Interior Department set new rules for offshore wind last year and said it was working to streamline the permit process.
The decision on Cape Wind comes a month after the Obama administration approved more offshore oil and gas drilling. At a press conference, Salazar was asked about an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from a deepwater rig that exploded last week.
Salazar said the Interior Department was watching the spill carefully. He added that "my own view" is that the country needed to move away from fossil fuels.
"Our overdependence on fossil fuels has created a problem we have in this country which has endangered our national security and at the same time has created the challenge we have with responding to the warming of the planet," Salazar said.
"We will continue to use fossil fuels, yes, in an appropriate way, but we need to transition to a clean energy future," he said.
Salazar also said that the United States is no longer leading in renewable energy technology. "We don't want to be second," he said, and so the government also would support efforts to get other offshore wind projects built.
Offshore wind farms have been proposed in proposed off Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Boston; Atlantic Beach, Atlantic City and Avalon in New Jersey, in North Carolina's Eastern Pamlico Sound; in Lake Erie off Cleveland; off Block Island and Sakonnet in Rhode Island, and off Galveston, Texas.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound said opponents would attempt to stop the wind farm in court.
"We will not stand by and allow our treasured public lands to be marred forever by a corporate giveaway to private industrial energy developers," the group's president and CEO, Audra Parker, said in a statement.
Plans for Cape Wind call for construction to begin within a year. Its 130 turbines would be placed in a grid pattern over a 25-square-mile area of Nantucket Sound. The closest turbine to land will be about five miles from Cape Cod. The turbines will supply a maximum of 468 megawatts of electricity, about the output of a medium-sized coal-fired electricity plant, or enough for about 200,000 homes in Massachusetts.
The Interior Department said it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road.
The developer, Energy Management Inc., said that the wind turbines would appear a half-inch above the horizon from the nearest beach.
Salazar said the developer was required to reduce the number of turbines from an original plan for 170, reconfigure their arrangement and paint them off-white to reduce their visibility.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and governors of five other Atlantic states wrote to Salazar arguing that if he blocked Cape Wind on the grounds of historic preservation, it would be difficult to get an offshore wind permit approved anywhere on the East Coast.
Patrick said the cost of conventional electricity has gone up in recent years, and the wind project would benefit consumers because the costs wouldn't fluctuate.
Cape Wind has not yet signed a power purchase agreement, and so it's not known how much its electricity will cost.
"We hope that today's decision on Cape Wind will help set in motion a series of actions leading to additional American offshore wind projects," Michael Hirshfield, senior vice president of the conservation group Oceana, said in a statement. "It sends a clear signal to turbine manufacturers and supporting companies that the U.S. means business on clean energy and climate change."
Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy and chair of an Interior Department advisory committee, criticized the decision.
Fry said that not enough was known about the potential for bird collisions and that the site is a prime foraging area for sea ducks and near a breeding ground for endangered roseate terns.
Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat who represents Cape Cod, and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., said they were in favor of wind power as an energy source, but opposed Cape Wind. Brown said that Nantucket Sound was a national treasure that should not be used for wind power, and that the wind farm would harm Cape Cod's tourism and fishing.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a longtime leader in the Senate for measures to reduce the threat of climate change, said Salazar made his decision after weighing all concerns. Kerry said he supported it.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY