Plans to develop a massive wind-energy project several miles off the coast of South Jersey took a major step forward Thursday when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a federal review of the project that determined it would not harm the environment.

Salazar’s finding of “no significant impact” clears the way for companies that are looking to develop the federally designated “wind energy areas” on the Outer Continental Shelf several miles off New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to seek leases. 

While all projects must also complete environmental impact statements, the federal decision speeds up the development process.

More than half of the 676,225-acre territory is off the southern part of New Jersey, 354,408 acres about seven to 22 nautical miles offshore between about Harvey Cedars and Cape May Point.

Salazar, speaking in Baltimore, also promised quick action on the leases, pledging the government would approve them this year, adding “no developer should wait nine, 10 years for a lease.”

A similar project in Massachusetts has been hamstrung by a years-long review.

There now are no wind turbines in American waters, something President Barack Obama said he was seeking to change with an “all-out, all-in, all-of-the-above” energy strategy outlined in his State of the Union address last month.

While critics have balked at the cost of erecting the wind-energy system, in New Jersey, developers and officials applauded the decision.

Michele Siekerka, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s assistant commissioner for Economic Growth and Green Energy, said the decision is beneficial to the state. 

She said the scale of the state’s wind-energy ambitions could serve to attract manufacturing jobs to build the needed infrastructure. 

New Jersey is well positioned to be the first state in the country to develop offshore wind energy, she said. Maryland and Virginia are now beginning to seek projects, a process that closed in New Jersey seven months ago.

Cape May County’s Fishermen’s Energy was one of 11 firms that the state announced last June had expressed interest in developing as much as 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind projects. 

“We’re really pleased that the announcement has come out,” said Rhonda Jackson, a spokeswoman for Fishermen’s Energy. “We hope that it’s another signal to make offshore wind happen.”

The company has proposed a $220 million project that would generate 25 megawatts of power with five turbines several miles off Atlantic City.

One megawatt of wind energy can generate between 2.4 million and 3 million kilowatt hours of power every year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The average family consumes 10,655 kilowatt hours of electricity each year.

“We have arranged our financing, selected our turbines and lined up our contractors,” company President Paul Gallagher said in a speech last month. “We are, in what Obamaspeak refers to as ‘shovel ready.’”

Jackson said the firm has its state permits but it was waiting to hear from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its final permits. It also was waiting to hear from the state Board of Public Utilities on its proposal to pre-sell the project’s power-generating capacity to power companies.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, a trade group that represents power firms and suppliers, called the decision “a critical step in the establishment of the U.S. offshore wind industry.”

He said the coalition was encouraged by the results of environmental and wildlife studies at European offshore wind farms, which have been online for more than 20 years. 

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., called the decision “a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win for New Jersey” in a statement, saying it will help the state become a national leader in wind-energy innovation.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, said he was pleased to hear the announcement because it will ease the way for wind-energy development. 

“Up till now, it was easier to site oil wells off the coast than it was for windmills,” he said. 

While the state energy master plan called for 20 percent of power to be generated through renewable sources, he said that figure could be closer to 50 percent based on the size of the state’s developable area, and said it was an argument for the closing of the coal-powered B.L. England power plant in Upper Township, Cape May County.

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