- Associated Press - Thursday, January 29, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - U.S. officials on Thursday auctioned off leases to more than 550 square miles of federal waters off the Massachusetts coast to two companies hoping to develop wind energy projects.

The two parcels were among four up for lease by the Interior Department. The two other parcels didn’t receive bids.

The winning bids by Offshore MW LLC and RES America Inc. totaled $448,171. The auctioned parcels are in an area beginning about 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Officials said the total acreage of the two areas auctioned off nearly doubles the amount of acreage leased for wind energy through competitive sales.

The auction comes as the future of the Cape Wind project - which had been billed at the nation’s first offshore wind farms - is in doubt.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell hailed the auction, calling it another important step toward building an offshore wind energy infrastructure.

“Offshore wind along the Atlantic holds great potential to help power our nation with renewable energy while adding jobs to the economy,” Jewell said in a statement.

The area leased could support approximately two gigawatts of commercial wind generation, enough electricity to power over 700,000 homes if fully developed, according to an analysis prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Awarding the leases is just the first step of a lengthy regulatory process.

Each lease will have a preliminary term of one year. During that time the company awarded the lease must submit a site assessment plan for approval.

If the assessment plan is approved, the companies have up to five years to submit a construction plan providing detailed information about the construction and operation of the wind energy project on the lease.

Approval of a construction plan will trigger an environmental review.

If a company clears all the hurdles, they will be granted an operations term of 25 years.

Environmental groups hailed the decision.

“We have vast untapped potential to power the Eastern Seaboard with pollution-free wind energy, and now the first wind turbines are closer than ever to spinning off our nation’s shores,” Ben Hellerstein, campaign organizer for Environment Massachusetts, said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey also praised the auction, noting that the winds that battered the Massachusetts coast during this week’s blizzard hold untapped energy potential.

“These same harsh winds that we’ve endured for centuries can be turned into clean power for our homes, creating jobs even as it cuts the carbon pollution that is worsening climate change and supercharging storms,” Markey said in a statement.

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