ATLANTIC CITY - New Jersey is stepping out as a national leader in the wind energy business.

Not only does it have the most ambitious wind power goal of any state, but the North American Offshore Wind Conference recently brought more than 1,600 industry officials to Atlantic City to get an upclose look at the potential.

The state hopes to eventually generate 1,100 megawatts of power through four offshore wind projects, including two proposed by Cape May-based Fishermen's Energy. Two other companies - NRG Bluewater Wind and Garden State Offshore Energy - are planning similar projects between Atlantic City and Avalon that are estimated to cost more than $1 billion each.

But the road ahead is uncertain and fraught with government red tape, insecure financing and potential environmental liabilities, conference attendees explained.

"Offshore wind from a European perspective is not new and has a clear risk profile," said Thomas Zimmerman, a German banker who was one of many financiers attending the conference. "Well, we don't have the same hurricane risk."

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno took the opportunity Thursday to sell New Jersey to the assembly of bankers, insurance companies and wind-industry executives. She pointed out that New Jersey has a skilled workforce, 60 higher-education institutions, $100 million in available tax credits and an artificial market for wind power in a densely populated region that has some of the nation's highest energy prices.

"New Jersey has the best overall climate to develop your business here. We have the political will to get you here on time and under budget," she said.

To show her sincerity, Guadagno offered her personal cell-phone number to companies that are considering the Garden State.

Three companies are not waiting.

Garden State Offshore Energy, owned by PSEG and Deepwater Wind, plans to launch a buoy this year using radar called LIDAR to study weather patterns 20 miles off Atlantic City.

Company spokesman Scott Jennings said state regulations creating a market for 1,100 megawatts of wind power will open doors to offshore wind companies.

"The state is positioning itself very well to attract manufacturing businesses," he said. "What gives New Jersey a leg up is the size and certainty of the program. No state has a program that large."

The state Department of Environmental Protection finished a two-year study of 73 miles of coastline looking at the migratory patterns of birds, whales, dolphins and sea turtles in preparation for the offshore wind projects.

"The state has invested substantial resources to get this started," Jennings said.

When it comes to on-shore wind potential, New Jersey does not even make the top-20 states, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But the state's offshore wind potential is vast: an estimated 100 gigawatts within 50 miles of shoreline.

Critics of offshore wind say it will lead to higher utility bills for customers. But New Jersey has not seen anything resembling the public backlash that faced Massachusetts-based Cape Wind, which this week secured the nation's first federal lease for offshore wind from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

By comparison, New Jersey's only commercial wind farm - the five windmills at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority off Route 30 in Atlantic City - has been well received, so much so that the authority regularly offers private tours. The authority ferried visiting conference attendees from the convention center to its headquarters to see its windmills.

And the project manager for the wind farm, ACUA Vice President Paul Gallagher, is now working for Fishermen's Energy and served as the local host for this week's wind conference.

State environmentalists are solidly behind offshore wind, even criticizing the lengthy delays these projects face in permitting that postponed Cape Wind's project off Cape Cod by eight years.

"It took too long and was too complex a process."said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "It is still easier to put an oil well off our coast than a windmill. It takes 10 years to put up a wind farm and two years for an oil well."

Fishermen's Energy's strategy is to build a $175 million, six-turbine demonstration project 2.8 miles off Tennessee Avenue in Atlantic City to show that offshore wind can be practical and lucrative.

President Daniel Cohen said the company has a contract with Lockheed Martin for an offshore-wind study that uses innovative technology more often associated with jet aircraft.

His company is collaborating with the owners of the Steel Pier on the city's Boardwalk to study bird migration. The Steel Pier plans to erect five 200-foot wind turbines on its landmark next year.

Fishermen's Energy hired Geo-Marine to study bird migration using a radar system mounted at the end of the pier. The radar tracks birds 3 miles out and as much as 18,000 feet high. It also uses a thermal device to identify the species of birds.

And the company is using a barge platform to study the ocean floor where it intends to run a power cable between the six windmills to an underground conduit beneath the beach and Boardwalk to a junction box.

Cohen said he expects to win all necessary permits by year's end and begin construction in 2011.

"We hope to be in the water soon," he said.

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