WASHINGTON — Federal regulators on Tuesday knocked down a bureaucratic hurdle that had for years stood in the way of offshore wind development.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Philip Moeller, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the Senate energy committee Tuesday their agencies have resolved a dispute over who should regulate wind turbines built far offshore. A memorandum of understanding is being drafted to lay out how the two agencies will share duties.
Government and industry leaders have long complained the disagreement stood in the way of budding efforts to build wind farms off the East Coast.
The resolution underscores the Obama administration's efforts to quickly and aggressively develop America's renewable energy sources.
"What has happened in the past is that we always had a helter-skelter approach," Salazar said. "There was no program or plan that was done."
Experts say offshore wind will be most helpful to congested coastal states that have little opportunity to produce land-based wind energy — states like Florida.
Florida has an enormous offshore wind resource, according to a recent report commissioned by state regulators. The state's coastal winds could produce 154,500 gigawatt hours of electricity, nearly 70 percent of the electricity used in Florida in 2007.
Florida's utilities have not built offshore wind turbines due to high costs, challenging offshore conditions and environmental opposition. Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, plans to build a small wind facility on an island off the state's east coast. Not technically an offshore project, it has already run into stiff opposition from activists worried about the turbines' impact on birds.
But Salazar said offshore wind will be part of the Obama administration's comprehensive energy plan.
"The Atlantic Coast offers one of the greatest potentials for wind energy in America, and it would be foolhardy for the United States not to look at offshore wind," Salazar said.
Yet the disagreement between the Interior Department's Minerals Management Agency and FERC stalled efforts to draft regulations for three years.
"From our perspective it has delayed the start of the entire industry," said Chris Wissemann, chief operating officer and founder of Deepwater Wind, which is seeking permits for two projects off New Jersey and Rhode Island that together are worth $2.5 billion.
FPL Group, parent of Florida Power & Light, is the largest wind energy producer in the United States. The company's subsidiary, NextEra Energy Resources, owns wind farms with a capacity of 6,375 megawatts at more than 65 wind farms in 16 states. NextEra has no immediate plans to invest in offshore wind energy, said spokesman Steven Stengel.