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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I.
The federal government is seeking proposals to develop wind energy farms off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday.
Rhode Island leaders said the move represents a significant step in efforts to bring wind turbines -- and jobs -- to the Ocean State's coast.
Salazar made the announcement Wednesday at Rhode Island's Quonset Point business and industrial park. He called the step a "major milestone" in the federal permitting process and said the federal government could sign leases with wind energy developers as soon as next year.
"Rhode Island is poised to be very much at the point of the spear in developing offshore wind," Salazar said.
Rhode Island leaders said Quonset Point has the potential to serve as a hub for wind turbine assembly. That could mean hundreds of jobs for a state that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S.; its jobless rate was 10.8 percent in June.
"There is no single project that has a better hope for a significant change in unemployment," said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
The federal government's request for proposals relates to a 285 square-mile area between Block Island and Martha's Vineyard.
Deepwater Wind has proposed building a 1,000-megawatt wind farm in the area and plans to base its manufacturing operations at Quonset Point. The Providence company plans to submit its formal application to the federal government soon.
"A large-scale wind farm in the deep waters south of Rhode Island Sound will deliver hundreds of jobs to southern New England, along with a clean, renewable source of energy," said Deepwater CEO Bill Moore in a statement.
If Deepwater Wind is selected to develop the project, the company could have turbines in the waters off Rhode Island in 2016 or 2017, according to the Jeffrey Grybowski, the company's chief administrative officer.
Salazar's announcement comes after several years of efforts to bring wind power to New England's coast.
Massachusetts is home to the nation's first federally-approved offshore wind farm, the 130-turbine Cape Wind project. Developers of the project are now looking for financing and hope to produce power by 2013.
Federal officials are also seeking developers interested in building wind energy projects in an area of ocean about 14 miles off Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Officials have not yet identified the final location for potential projects at the site.
While in Rhode Island, Salazar also toured the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Corridor. He vowed to support calls to give national historic park status to the Old Slater Mill and nearby mill towns in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Salazar said the designation would enhance the historic landmark's standing and boost tourism in Rhode Island.
Persuading Congress to budget funds for a new park will be a challenge, Salazar said. He estimated that turning the site into a national historic park will cost about $6 million in initial funds, and then $3 million per year for operations.
"I want it to happen," Salazar said. "It's important to celebrate that heritage so that future generations will remember."
The Slater Mill was America's first successful textile mill and helped usher in America's industrial revolution.
Salazar's visit is part of a four-state tour of the Northeast.