A whole new way of generating electricity in the U.S. drew a big step closer to reality Wednesday, and it could look like this: 130 windmills, 440 feet tall, rising from the ocean a few miles off Cape Cod.
After more than eight years of lawsuits and government reviews, the Obama administration cleared the way for the nation's first offshore wind farm.
"We are beginning a new direction in our nation's energy future," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared in announcing his approval of the $2 billion Cape Wind project, which would finally allow the U.S. to join the list of major countries that are producing electricity from sea breezes.
The project has faced intense opposition from environmentalists, an Indian tribe and some residents, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who warned that the windmills could mar the ocean view. They would be visible from the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port.
Salazar said the project's developers can protect local culture and beauty while expanding the nation's supply of renewable energy.
The developers are hoping to begin construction this year and start generating power by late 2012 — provided the venture isn't stopped by further lawsuits.
Members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard have vowed to go to court, saying the project would interfere with sacred rituals and desecrate long-submerged tribal burial sites. Other groups said they would sue immediately.
"It's far from over," Cape Cod resident Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. "Nantucket Sound needs to be off limits to Cape Wind and any other industrial development."
Salazar said the project had been exhaustively analyzed and added: "This is the final decision of the United States of America. We are very confident we will be able to uphold the decision against legal challenges."
Green jobs promised
The windmills would be about five miles off Cape Cod at their closest point to land and 14 miles off Nantucket at the greatest distance. According to simulations done for Cape Wind, on a clear day the turbines would look as if they were about a half-inch tall on the horizon at the nearest point and appear as specks from Nantucket.
The costs will be covered with private funding as well as potentially millions in federal stimulus money and tax credits. Cape Wind is negotiating to sell the electricity generated to a local utility.
Cape Wind eventually hopes to 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.
The announcement came after a pair of deadly disasters earlier this month in West Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico illustrated the risks in extracting oil and coal to meet the country's energy needs.
Advocates are hoping Cape Wind can jump-start the entire U.S. offshore wind industry.
America has the world's largest onshore wind industry but lags behind other countries in offshore electric generation because of high upfront costs, heavy regulation and technological challenges.
Denmark installed the world's first offshore wind turbine 20 years ago. China has built a commercial wind farm off Shanghai and plans several other projects. The Netherlands also has offshore turbines.
Major U.S. projects are on the drawing board for the waters off New Jersey, Delaware and Texas. The U.S. Department of Energy envisions offshore wind farms accounting for 4 percent of the country's electric generating capacity by 2030.
Kennedy, who loved to sail the waters off Cape Cod, fought Cape Wind until the weeks before his death last summer, calling it a special-interest giveaway that could harm the ocean vista. Others say it could interfere with air and sea traffic and endanger birds and other wildlife.
The lead federal agency reviewing the project, the Minerals Management Service, issued a report last year saying the project poses no major environmental problems.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., whose district includes Cape Cod, warned that the project will raise the region's power costs, disrupt an ocean sanctuary and set back the wind-power industry, all to benefit a private developer.
"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, colonial-era fishing villages and weathered, gray-shingled homes in its namesake architectural style.
Earlier this month, a federal panel, the Advisory Council on Historic Properties urged Salazar to reject the wind farm, saying it would have destructive effects on the view from dozens of historic sites.
Salazar said he worried that if the project were killed for such reasons, then no offshore wind farms would be possible on the Eastern Seaboard.