offshore wind energy
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Wind turbines, long a feature of the American landscape, are slowing advancing toward the American seascape.

The Interior Department announced Tuesday that it will auction off wind energy rights to 164,750 acres of federal waters off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts at the end of July — the first such offshore lease sale. If the leased waters are all fully developed with wind energy farms, they could produce as much as 3,400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than a million homes.

Wind turbines can kill birds, and construction of turbines in the water can harm marine life, but a federal environmental review found that wind farms in the area up for lease would have no significant environmental impacts.

Wind energy lease area shown in brown.
Wind energy lease area shown in brown.
Department of Interior

The U.S. currently has no offshore wind turbines, though the sector is well-developed in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. Europe, for example, has 55 wind energy farms in 10 countries with 1,662 turbines and more in the works, according to Greentech Media. But in the U.S., offshore wind is more controversial and polarizing.

From The Hill:

Democrats applauded the move as a strong step toward developing alternative energy sources.

“Offshore wind is a win for American jobs, for American energy security, and for our environment, and it will start off the coast of New England. With lease sales in federal waters, offshore wind will also be a boon for U.S. taxpayers,” Rep. Edward Markey (Mass.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a Tuesday statement.

For Republicans, the milestone is more of a boondoggle.

[Sen. David] Vitter’s [R-La.] office circulated a letter on Tuesday that [he] and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) sent to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last November.

The letter presses Republican concerns about President Obama’s offshore energy policies, as the GOP contends he keeps too much of the coast off limits to drillers.

Though this will be the government’s first auction of offshore wind leases, there are other offshore projects in the works that got federal permits before Interior set up its competitive bidding process. Greentech Media lists 13 such projects planned off the coasts of 10 states along the Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes, and Gulf of Mexico, but construction has not yet begun on any of them.

Meanwhile, a single, floating prototype wind turbine off the coast of Maine will soon begin generating enough electricity to power four homes. The lonely windmill will be America’s only grid-connected offshore turbine once it is switched on.