updated 6/23/2009 4:17:09 PM ET 2009-06-23T20:17:09

The federal government on Tuesday issued the first ever licenses to explore for wind energy along the Outer Continental Shelf.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar awarded five leases to four companies that want to develop windmills off New Jersey and Delaware. The leases allow the companies to build meteorological towers to gather information about the wind six to 18 miles offshore.

No offshore wind farms have been built in the United States. There are several in Europe, where the technology is gaining popularity.

Salazar said wind power can create new jobs for Americans while reducing the nation's "expensive and dangerous dependence on foreign oil."

"We are entering a new day for energy production in the United States — a time of clean energy from renewable domestic sources on our Outer Continental Shelf," Salazar said at a news conference on the Caesars Pier overlooking the ocean. "Other nations have been using offshore wind energy for more than a decade."

The exploratory leases went to Bluewater Wind New Jersey Energy; Fishermen's Energy of New Jersey; Deepwater Wind, which is doing two projects; and Bluewater Wind Delaware.

"New Jersey's Outer Continental Shelf is a resource that holds great promise for our energy independence and should be considered a haven for the clean, renewable and environmentally friendly energy that wind power provides," Gov. Jon Corzine said.

New Jersey wants to become a leader in wind energy by having 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind power built off its coast by 2020. The state's Board of Public Utilities has awarded $12 million in rebates to three offshore wind developers to help meet the goal.

In Delaware, Delmarva Power signed a power purchase agreement with Bluewater Wind for up to 200 megawatts in June 2008, and the pact was ratified by the state the following month. Salazar said Delaware's average offshore winds have the potential to produce 5,286 megawatts, which could power 1.2 million to 1.5 million average homes.

"We see this as a positive change from the Bush administration's energy plan," said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "We are moving from drill baby, drill, to wind baby, wind."

The data collected under these leases will be shared with the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service and used to help decide on future commercial renewable energy projects, such as wind turbine farms.

The first meteorological tower could be up and running by next summer off New Jersey.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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