The Obama administration has approved what would be the nation's first offshore wind farm, off Cape Cod, inching the U.S. closer to harvesting an untapped domestic energy source - the steady breezes blowing along its vast coasts.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced his decision Wednesday in Boston, clearing the way for a 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound. Cape Wind was in its ninth year of federal review, and Salazar stepped in early this year to bring what he called much-needed resolution to the bitterly contested proposal.
"We are beginning a new direction in our nation's energy future," Salazar said.
But members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard have vowed to sue to stop Cape Wind from being built, saying it would interfere with sacred rituals and desecrate tribal burial sites. Others opposed to the project on environmental grounds also have said they'll sue.
Salazar said he understood those concerns but had to weigh them against the nation's need for new renewable sources of energy.
Cape Wind says it can generate power by 2012 and aims to eventually supply three-quarters of the power on Cape Cod, which has about 225,000 residents. Cape Wind officials say it will provide green jobs and a reliable domestic energy source, while offshore wind advocates are hoping it can jump-start the U.S. industry.
America's onshore wind industry is the world's largest, but higher upfront costs, tougher technological challenges and environmental concerns have held back the development of offshore wind farms.
Denmark installed the world's first offshore wind turbine 20 years ago. China has built its first commercial wind farm off Shanghai and plans several other projects.
The U.S. Department of Energy envisions offshore wind farms accounting for 4 percent of the country's electric generating capacity by 2030.
Major U.S. proposals include a project in Texas state waters, but most are concentrated along the East Coast north of Maryland, including projects in Delaware and New Jersey.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has been an enthusiastic backer of Cape Wind, pushing it as key to the state's efforts to increase its use of renewable energy. The lead federal agency reviewing the project, the Minerals Management Service, issued a report last year saying the project posed no major environmental problems.
Critics say the project endangers wildlife and air and sea traffic, while marring historic vistas. The late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy fought Cape Wind, calling it a special interest giveaway. The wind farm would be visible from the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport.
Democrat U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who represents Cape Cod, said allowing the project to move forward will open "a new chapter of legal battles and potential setbacks" for the wind power industry.
"Cape Wind is the first offshore wind farm to be built in the wrong place, in the wrong way, stimulating the wrong economies," Delahunt said Wednesday.
Home to some of the best-known beaches in the Northeast, Cape Cod has long been a destination for summer vacations and is famous for its small towns and homes in its namesake architectural style.
The project is about five miles off Cape Cod at its closest proximity to land and 14 miles off Nantucket at the greatest distance. According to visual simulations done for Cape Wind, on a clear day the turbines would be about a half-inch tall on the horizon at the nearest point and appear as specks from Nantucket.
The developers are being required to configure the wind farm to reduce visual effects on the outer cape and Nantucket Island, Salazar said.
Opponents also said the power from the pricey Cape Wind project, estimated to cost at least $2 billion, would be too expensive.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, a Republican, said the project will jeopardize tourism and affect aviation safety and the rights of the Native American tribes.
"Nantucket Sound is a national treasure that should be protected from industrialization." Brown said.
Associated Press writers Glen Johnson in Washington and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.