Massachusetts is one step closer to seeing its coastline waters dotted with wind turbines as federal officials announced Monday that an auction date has been set for wind energy leases to develop more than 742,000 acres off the coast.
The sale is set for Jan. 29.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said the auction will be the largest competitive lease sale to date for offshore wind energy development and will "triple the amount of federal offshore acreage available for commercial-scale wind energy projects."
The area begins about 12 miles south of Martha's Vineyard. It's more than 1,160 square miles — larger than the land area of Rhode Island.
If fully developed, officials say the area could generate 4 to 5 gigawatts of commercial wind generation — enough electricity to power about 1.4 million homes. Development rights to the area will be auctioned as four separate leases.
Twelve companies have qualified to participate in the auction.
Gov. Deval Patrick said his administration has worked with federal, state, tribal, industry and community representatives to put the infrastructure and planning pieces in place to make Massachusetts what he called "the launch pad for the U.S. offshore wind industry."
"This offshore wind energy area not only has the capacity to generate enough electricity to power half the homes in Massachusetts, but it will create local jobs and a renewable and homegrown source of power," Patrick said in a statement Monday.
Seven commercial wind energy leases have already been awarded off the Atlantic coast, including two noncompetitive leases — the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound and an area off Delaware, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Five competitive leases have been awarded including two offshore leases in the Massachusetts-Rhode Island area, two in Maryland and one in Virginia.
Federal energy officials hope to hold another competitive offshore wind auction in New Jersey in 2015.
The Cape Wind project, which would be closer to shore, has been in the works for more than a dozen years and has faced opposition and lawsuits.
Federal officials — who say they will weigh both monetary and nonmonetary factors before awarding the new offshore leases — say they've learned from the hurdles that faced Cape Wind and tried to outline areas that would generate energy without generating such intense opposition.
How many wind turbines will be built is unclear, although Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acting Director Walter Cruickshank said in June that there's potential in the area for "a few hundred turbines."
Cruickshank also said that if turbines were built right at the boundary — 12 miles off Martha's Vineyard and 13 miles off Nantucket — they would be visible on a clear day. He said turbines would not be built at the boundary's edge, however.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey also released a statement Monday saying he planned to follow the process closely "to ensure that this site is developed in a way that will maximize job creation and affordable clean energy production for Massachusetts."