U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a federal blessing for the controversial Cape Wind project today—clearing a path for mammoth wind turbines to be built offshore of the Massachusetts vacation destination, the first such offshore wind farm in the U.S. Given that the United Kingdom (alone) has 1 gigawatt of such offshore wind as of 2010 and Denmark has been building offshore since 1990, you might wonder what's taken so long? After all, the project was first proposed nearly a decade ago.

But virulent opposition from Cape Codders ranging from (recently deceased) Ted Kennedy to the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans has delayed erecting a single turbine at Horseshoe Shoal, nearly eight kilometers offshore. And, while some preliminary work has been done to select sites in other states, such as Delaware, as the fate of Cape Wind blows, so blows the offshore wind industry in the U.S.

That's too bad since much of U.S. electricity demand is located on the nation's East Coast and the renewable resource closest to that burgeoning megalopolis is, you guessed it, offshore winds. In fact, one study predicts that all of that demand could be met by sea breezes and reliably too (as long as the proper wiring was installed at the same time).

Salazar made some concessions to the opposition, downscaling the project from 170 to 130 turbines and reconfiguring the layout of the turbines to reduce their visibility from shore, among others. At roughly 450 megawatts the turbines would be more than enough electricity to meet all of Cape Cod's more than 200,000 residents' power needs when the wind blows strong.

Opponents of the project will likely sue, despite the fact that a March 2008 survey found that 74 percent of the folks who actually live in Cape Cod support the project. At issue here wasn't viewsheds or heritage, but whether some wind turbines could be placed offshore or another fossil fuel-fired power plant needed to be built somewhere else. Killing Cape Wind really would have meant polluting Cape Cod's neighbors—and standing athwart a clean energy revolution in the U.S.

" The need to preserve the environmental resources and rich cultural heritage of Nantucket Sound must be weighed in the balance with the importance of developing new renewable energy sources and strengthening our nation's energy security while battling climate change and creating jobs," Salazar said in a statement announcing the decision. "With this decision we are beginning a new direction in our nation's energy future, ushering in America’s first offshore wind energy facility."

Image: ©iStockphoto.com / Tore Johannesen