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80,000 acres identified for offshore wind in Md.

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BRIAN WITTE | December 18, 2013 09:34 AM EST | AP

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Interior Department announced a proposed notice of sale Tuesday for nearly 80,000 acres for commercial offshore wind development off the coast of Maryland beginning about 10 miles from Ocean City.

An analysis by the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the area could support between 850 to 1450 megawatts of commercial wind generation, which would be enough electricity to power about 300,000 homes annually when fully developed. Work to start offshore wind energy is part of President Barack Obama's push to increase renewable energy by working with state, local and federal partners.

"It's a major milestone for us," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at a news conference in Baltimore. "It's a major milestone for Maryland as you work toward a more renewable energy future here."

An online auction is expected next year. Wind turbines could be built as soon as 2018, said Abigail Hopper, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

"Obviously, that's an optimistic timetable, but we think it's possible," Hopper said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management identified the offshore wind area in consultation with members of its Maryland Intergovernmental Task Force, which includes federal, state, tribal and local government officials.

"The offshore wind development will not only power 300,000 homes with renewable energy, it will also create jobs, jobs in a new industry," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who pushed for legislation to create a regulatory framework to develop offshore wind that was approved in the last legislative session.

Monthly electricity bills for residential ratepayers would go up an estimated $1.50 a month under the state's framework, once power begins to be generated. Commercial ratepayers could see increases of up to 1.5 percent.

Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who represents Maryland's Eastern Shore, criticized the proposal, saying it will increase utility costs for Maryland residents and increase the federal deficit through taxpayer subsidies to offshore wind companies.

"Offshore wind remains one of the most expensive forms of energy production, costing many times more than energy produced from clean, American natural gas," Harris said.

Tuesday's notice triggers a 60-day public comment period that ending Feb. 18.  

O'Malley announced grant opportunities to help draw interest, including a $500,000 grant to help companies offset capital project costs needed to enter the offshore wind market, and a $25,000 grant to help companies recover costs with bidding on the projects.

The proposed Maryland site is the third of its kind in the nation. In September, there was an auction of 112,799 acres offshore Virginia for wind energy development that was provisionally won by Virginia Electric and Power Co. with a high bid of $1.6 million. Earlier this summer, the Interior Department held its first successful offshore wind lease sale — of 164,750 acres offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts — that was won by Deepwater Wind New England, LLC with a high bid of $3.8 million.