The Interior Department today issued first-time "exploratory" leases for wind projects off New Jersey and Delaware, allowing developers to locate data-gathering towers aimed at supporting planned commercial wind farms.

Interior announced four leases for areas ranging from 6 to 18 miles offshore to Bluewater Wind New Jersey Energy LLC; Fishermen's Energy of New Jersey LLC; Deepwater Wind LLC; and Bluewater Wind Delaware LLC.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, proclaiming a "major first step" toward harnessing offshore wind power, announced the leases today in Atlantic City, alongside New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D).

Salazar is one of several Obama administration officials dispatched to highlight President Obama's energy agenda, which Obama himself is expected to address in an early-afternoon news conference.

The administration events include Energy Secretary Steven Chu announcing $8 billion in loans to help the auto industry make advanced, efficient vehicles (see related story). Democrats are also seeking to build support for a sweeping energy and climate bill expected on the House floor later this week.

The wind announcement is one of several recent federal steps on offshore renewable energy. They include resolution of a dispute between Interior's Minerals Management Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over the agencies' roles in regulating development of various offshore renewable energies.

In April, MMS completed final rules on commercial offshore renewable-energy leasing -- policies that must be in place for the developers with the newly issued exploratory leases to construct wind farms in the federal waters.

The exploratory leases are being issued under a Bush-era policy aimed at allowing preliminary work on offshore alternative energy projects while commercial leasing rules were crafted.

"That is a critical first step for any wind project, to be able to measure the wind resource, and I think the efforts to get the rule out and to do the MOU [memorandum of understanding] between FERC and MMS really did lay the ground work for this action," said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association.

The meteorological towers would collect data on wind speed, intensity and direction. Salazar said that if the projects come to commercial fruition, they would jointly provide 1,500 megawatts of power.

Bluewater Wind -- which is receiving leases off New Jersey and Delaware -- said it plans to begin survey work this summer, build the meteorological towers this winter and begin their ocean operation in the spring of 2010.

Salazar has touted the potential for wind energy along the Atlantic Coast to eventually supply large amounts of electric power (E&ENews PM, April 2).

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500