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Cape Wind project will be big test for offshore wind energy

The newly approved Cape Wind project in Massachusetts will be closely watched, by both supporters and detractors, as it goes forward. Many see it as a barometer for the future of offshore wind energy in the US.

By / staff writer / May 3, 2010

The long-embattled Cape Wind project that recently won federal approval marks the first offshore wind-power generation venture in the United States and paves the way for a wave of similar proposals now waiting in the wings.

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While US wind resources are massive, most are on land in the wind-swept Plains states. America has more than 35,000 megawatts of land-based wind generation (the same generating capacity as 35 large coal-fired power plants), but none offshore.

Now, after nearly a decade of battles pitting Massachusetts' Cape and island residents, Indian tribes, and influential politicians against one another and project developers, the offshore wind energy industry is poised to grow, US officials say.

"We are beginning a new direction in our nation's energy future, ushering in America's first offshore wind energy facility and opening a new chapter in the history of this region," says Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Cape Wind, which plans to put 130 wind turbines – each at least 400 feet above sea level – across a swath of Nantucket Sound, is expected to provide enough energy to power about 200,000 homes.

It will probably be the first of several ventures that will produce about 8,000 megawatts of offshore generating capacity by 2025. About two-thirds will be concentrated in New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic states, according to IHS Emerging Energy Research in Cambridge, Mass.

"This is a very symbolic step for the offshore wind industry," says Matt Kaplan, a senior wind industry analyst at IHS. "Cape Wind has been the offshore wind pioneer in the US. If the project is completed, it would signal the beginning of a new industry in the US."

While IHS anticipates offshore wind farms in Hawaii and California and along the Gulf Coast, development probably will emerge most quickly across the Northeast, Mr. Kaplan says. That's where energy prices are higher and where regulators are requiring that an increasing share of generation come from renewable sources. In contrast, due to low power prices and onshore wind resources, development probably won't surge in the Great Lakes area, Kaplan says.