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US poised to sell offshore wind leases

Interior secretary warns loss of funds would set back renewable energy gains

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“The Cape Wind lease. . . was hard to get across the finish line, but it’s there and we’re very hopeful that we’ll see a groundbreaking here with the Cape Wind project yet this year in 2013,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

A year after designating large swaths of federal water south of Martha’s Vineyard as ideal for offshore wind development, the government is preparing to hold competitive lease sales for plots inside one of those wind energy areas this summer, outgoing Secretary of the ­Interior Ken Salazar said Tuesday.

Lease sales inside the expanse covering roughly 257 square miles — and others inside another plot off the coast of Virginia — will be the first of their kind, Salazar told a crowd of about 300 at the opening of the Offshore Wind Power USA conference in Boston. The area off Martha’s Vineyard is about 10 times the size of the controversial Cape Wind site off Cape Cod.

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“We have already identified where the sweet spots are for wind energy projects in the Atlantic,” Salazar said. “That means that as developers move forward in their significant interest along the Atlantic Coast to propose projects, they’ll know where those projects should go.”

The Department of the Interior has identified half a dozen such areas along the Atlantic Coast, including another giant swath about 14 miles off of Martha’s Vineyard that covers 1,160 square miles of ocean. The other areas are located in federal waters off New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware.

Though leases are not yet available for the larger wind energy area off Massachusetts, at least 10 developers have expressed interest in building in those waters. That area eventually could produce nearly 10 times the amount of ­energy expected from the Cape Wind turbines and power an estimated 1.7 million homes, ­according to government estimates.

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During his 28-minute keynote speech, Salazar lauded the gains his department has made in promoting alternative energy production. He cited the ­creation of a Bureau of Ocean ­Energy Management; approval for 34 renewable energy projects on public lands; and the creation of a regulatory framework for offshore wind production in the United States, which Salazar said will help the ­government manage any ­development along the 1.7 billion acres of ocean floor overseen by the Department of the Interior.

“We control the ocean floor, we get to decide what it is that happens with that 1.7 billion acres for the benefit of the people of the United States of America,” Salazar said. “The ocean floor was not seen as a high priority for the development of renewable energy resources, but we have been able to change that.”

The regulatory framework for offshore wind energy, Salazar added, will help future wind projects avoid getting “bogged down in the red tape” and a ­decade of litigation, like Cape Wind.

“There is the Cape Wind lease, and that was hard to get across the finish line,” Salazar said, “but it’s there, and we’re very hopeful that we’ll see a groundbreaking here with the Cape Wind project yet this year.”

In his speech, Salazar also warned that the strides the agency made could be stymied by the large federal budget cuts scheduled to begin Friday .

The effect of the cuts, he added, would be akin to ­“almost a 10 percent cut across the Department of Interior for this fiscal year” — but shoehorned into the next seven months.

“It’s almost the equivalent amount of money as what we have to power the entire ­Bureau of Land Management and all of its functions,” Salazar said.

He did not offer solutions to the potential cuts, but said during his speech and in a later session with reporters that if the country wants to continue growing its alternative energy resources, policy makers need to give the industry more certainty — through strong incentives as well as the creation of a national energy policy.

“Even in the last year there was more wind power put on the grid than any other power, so that’s a tremendous success,” Salazar told reporters. “I think what we have struggled with is that there has not been a ­national framework for getting it done, other than the incentives from [investment and production tax credits] and those have been subject to the start and stop realities that we’ve seen over the last eight to 10 years.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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