The U.S. government on Monday said it has completed an environmental assessment that will guide construction of wind projects in a swath of federal waters off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with the hope of offering leases to developers by the end of next year.
The study is intended to simplify the leasing process for the Rhode Island/Massachusetts Wind Energy Area, which comprises more than 164,000 acres in an area roughly 11 miles south of Martha's Vineyard and 13 miles east of Block Island. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has designated the area an ideal place for power generation.
The assessment "sets the stage for moving forward aggressively with competitive lease sales in this area," said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Already, eight companies have expressed interest in leases offshore Massachusetts and Rhode Island, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in a conference call Monday. The companies include Deepwater Wind New England, LLC, Energy Management, Inc., enXco, Fishermen's Energy, LLC, Iberdrola Renewables Inc., Mainstream Renewable Power, Neptune Wind LLC and US Wind, Inc.
Interested parties including representatives from the fishing industry, cultural organizations and tribes will now have 30 days to make public comment on the assessment's findings. The bureau will host public informational sessions on July 16 and 17.
Regulators originally had proposed opening up a larger area, but certain "high value" fishing grounds were cut out following objections from commercial fishermen who said their businesses would be affected by fields of turbines.
"We applaud the Obama Administration for seeking input during this process from fishing, tribal and local governments and for protecting important fishing and other environmentally sensitive areas," said Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a statement that it is important to ensure offshore turbines have minimal environmental impact while harnessing wind power.
"It is important that we develop our coastal resources in a thoughtful and inclusive manner as we strive to make Rhode Island a national leader in offshore wind development, and help bring assembly and manufacturing jobs to the state," said Reed, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment.
In 2010, Salazar launched the wind energy initiative for the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to facilitate siting, leasing and project construction. According to the department, a "critical piece" of the policy includes determining wind energy areas in conjunction with Bureau of Ocean Energy Management task forces and other federal agencies.
The secretary commended the progress made in renewable energy during the past few years, adding that now the United States is emerging as a leader in the field, harnessing 21 percent of the global wind capacity.