A federal agency approved a construction and operations plan for the Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast, clearing the way for work to begin on America's first offshore wind farm as early as this fall, U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar announced Tuesday.
Approval by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement was required before construction of the proposed 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound could get under way.
The secretary said the Cape Wind project, which has already received other state and federal permits, could create 600 to 1,000 jobs and that nationwide the wind power industry had the potential for tens of thousands of jobs.
"The wind potential off the Atlantic coast is staggering," but the vetting process for projects to tap it is too drawn out, Salazar said at a news conference in Boston.
"Taking 10 years to permit an offshore wind farm like Cape Wind is simply unacceptable," and the Obama administration is examining ways to streamline the permitting process so it won't take so long, Salazar said.
Yet Cape Wind itself still faces hurdles.
Opponents have filed nearly a dozen lawsuits against state and local agencies designed to block the project, saying the turbines could harm the pristine environment of Nantucket Sound.
"It's a national treasure that should not be industrialized," said Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, who attended the event in Boston.
Developers of the 468-megawatt project also are still shopping for a buyer for about half the power the turbines are expected to generate.
Cape Wind Associates Vice President Dennis Duffy told reporters he's confident the project will find a buyer for the remaining energy.
He said that even though the energy produced by the wind farm could cost the average ratepayer an extra $1.50 a month on their utility bill, wind power is essentially exempt from the fluctuations in other energy markets. If other energy prices rise, wind power could be even more desirable.
"It's an important hedge with real economic value," Duffy said. "It's an active market where there is a long term shortage of supply."
In a statement, Gov. Deval Patrick said federal approval of the construction and operations plan meant the state was one step closer to benefiting from the clean energy and jobs that Cape Wind will produce.
"States up and down the East Coast are now looking to Massachusetts with envy as we launch this brand new American industry," Patrick said.
As many as 11 other coastal states are currently looking at developing offshore wind farms, including Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia. Massachusetts is also exploring the possibility of other wind farms near Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
The Patrick administration also is pushing for a federal loan guarantee for Cape Wind that they say could provide savings of up to 15 percent for ratepayers serviced by the wind farm.
In a separate announcement on Tuesday, the governor said his administration had requested that the federal government remove from consideration for wind farms offshore areas that have been identified by commercial fishermen and others as vital to the Massachusetts fishing industry.
A 2008 law requires Massachusetts utilities to obtain increasing amounts of renewable power and calls for 20 percent of their supply to be renewable power by 2025. The same law tries to make it easier for renewable projects to get financing by requiring utilities to seek long-term deals with them for at least 3 percent of their total demand.
Cape Wind opponents have argued that the project will pose an unnecessary burden for electric ratepayers.
The state's largest utility, National Grid, signed a deal with Cape Wind that the utility said will cost ratepayers $1.2 billion above the projected market price of comparable energy by the time it's done. Still, National Grid argues that the deal is a good price for the benefits it is receiving, including a uniquely large size for a renewable power project and proximity to an energy-hungry coast.
The state's other large utility, NStar, passed on Cape Wind, instead focusing on energy contracts with three smaller land wind farms that it said are a total of $111 million below market price.
The Cape Wind project will cost $2.62 billion to build, according an estimate from the Massachusetts attorney general's office. Developers say it will power 200,000 homes in average winds.