BOSTON -- Towering turbines in Maine and New York -- and off the Atlantic Coast -- could ease a looming energy crunch in Massachusetts, and wind energy companies want the state to support their budding industry.
Lawmakers are discussing plans to force utilities to enter long-term contracts with clean energy providers to replace the energy created by retiring nuclear and coal-fired power plants, while cutting carbon emissions and potentially lowering electricity prices.
The outcome of those talks could affect the state's energy production and electricity costs for decades.
Environmentalists want wind -- in addition to solar and hydropower -- to play a major part in the renewable energy mix.
"We want to see the offshore wind industry launched at scale in our state," said Josh Craft, program director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, one of several groups pushing the state to expand its use of clean energy. "Harnessing this natural resource will help us meet energy needs while creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions."
The demand for new sources of electricity is drawing some of the world's biggest wind companies to the region, and a range of projects are in various stages of development to feed power-hungry Southern New England.
Denmark-based Dong Energy has leased 187,000 acres of federal waters off Martha's Vineyard where it wants to build a wind farm with capacity of up to 1,000 megawatts - enough to power 1 million homes. The project 15 miles off the coast is called Bay State Wind.
Denmark gets nearly half of its electricity from wind power and boasts some of the lowest energy prices in Europe. Dong Energy has built 14 offshore wind farms in northern Europe, including the world’s largest in the Thames Estuary.
Thomas Brostrøm, Dong's general manager for North American operations, said strong winds off the Southern New England coast are similar to those of the areas of Europe’s North Sea, where the company developed several large-scale offshore wind farms.
“We see a lot of potential in the Massachusetts market," he said. "And there's is a big demand for renewable energy."
The area off Martha's Vineyard was one of several leased by the U.S. Interior Department to developers for offshore wind farms.
By the end of the year, Rhode Island-based Deepwater Wind plans to flip the switch on the country's first offshore wind farm in state-owned waters near Martha's Vineyard.
Its 30-megawatt project, with an estimated price tag of $300 million, consists of five, 600-foot offshore wind turbines that will provide ample electricity to nearby Block Island and the Rhode Island mainland.
Deepwater Wind has signed a 20-year contract with National Grid to sell the power, starting at 24 cents per kilowatt hour.
"The Northeast is perfect for this industry because we have world-class winds," said Jeff Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind.
Because wind is stronger on the ocean, developers can use larger turbines that spin more rapidly and efficiently, he said.
Deepwater Wind has also leased 250 square miles from the feds for a much larger project about 20 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
"That area has the capacity to install a few hundred turbines to supply energy to Massachusetts," Grybowski said.
Nationally, wind generation rose 5.1 percent last year, driven by federal tax credits that saved developers millions of dollars. Congress has renewed the tax credits until the end of this year.
Overall, the wind industry employs more than 70,000 people in 43 states, most in Texas and California, the two biggest wind power markets, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Like solar energy, the prices of wind energy have plummeted in recent years, which has stirred consumer interest.
The average long-term contract price for wind power paid by utilities has dropped 60 percent since 2009, falling to about $25 per megawatt hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Within Massachusetts, wind companies say large-scale onshore projects aren't feasible for many reasons - mostly because of the state's geography, low winds over land and safety concerns from installing turbines near homes.
That hasn't stopped companies from figuring out how to harness wind power in places where turbines are more easily erected, and moving the energy across state lines.
Wakefield-based Anbaric Transmission and National Grid, one of the region’s largest utilities, are pursuing a pair of projects that would link onshore wind farms in Maine and Vermont, along with Canadian hydropower, to provide electricity in Southern New England.
Ed Krapels, Anbaric’s CEO, said the mix will produce clean energy all day -- not just when the wind blows.
"The combination of wind and hydropower is really best way to reliably meet our clean energy goals and diversify our energy portfolio," said Krapels, a native of the Netherlands who lives in Andover. "The potential for these projects is huge."
The company's Maine Green Line project would carry about 1,000-megawatts of hydro- and wind-generated electricity through an underwater cable, along the floor of the Gulf of Maine, to Greater Boston.
Its Vermont Green Line would provide about 400-megawatts to the region from wind farms in upstate New York, and hydropower from Hydro-Quebec, through a line under Lake Champlain.
Combined, the projects would provide enough electricity to power nearly 1 million homes, Krapels said.
Cities and towns also see promise in onshore wind energy. Some -- including Gloucester, Newburyport, Lynn and Revere -- have put up turbines on former landfills or tracts of open space to offset their energy costs and generate revenue.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said those wind projects are more suitable for coastal communities or those in high elevations. Most cities and towns that build a clean energy portfolio, he said, tap large-scale solar farms.
"Solar power has a much more broader application than wind in most communities," he said. "It really depends on the location."
Massachusetts has a mixed record with wind energy. The Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, which faced legal challenges and opposition from residents of Cape Cod and the islands, foundered last year when its backers couldn't meet financing deadlines.
And the Legislature has previously failed to agree on wind energy policies.
As part of a new energy bill, lawmakers are seeking a special carve-out for offshore wind that would require the state's publicly regulated utilities to enter into purchase agreements with companies such as Deepwater Wind and Dong Energy.
Wind developers with rights to offshore tracts would compete against each other to fill the state's energy quotas.
Wind companies say a regulatory framework is crucial for the industry.
"One of things we've always lacked is a long-term vision for how to build out the wind industry," Grybowski said. "Like most new industries, it needs a clear, consistent set of guidelines from the government as to how to proceed."
Lending political clout to the effort is Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, the House Speaker Pro-tem and a wind energy proponent.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has also expressed his support for wind energy, telling the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in a speech last month that yet-to-be-filed energy legislation will include provisions supporting offshore wind development.
“Project developers will have to demonstrate cost benefits, feasibility and a guarantee that their power will be delivered during critical times, like the terrible winter we experienced last year,” said DeLeo, who offered few specifics about the bill.
Gov. Charlie Baker also wants to pursue a mix of renewable energy to offset the expected loss of 10,000 megawatts from coal- and oil-burning plants while cutting the state's carbon output. His plan, which hinges on lawmakers' approval, calls on the state's utilities to import at least 1,200 megawatts of hydropower per year, supplemented by wind and solar energy.
Companies that could get a piece of the action are lobbying lawmakers.
Offshore Wind Massachusetts, an advocacy group founded last year by several wind power companies, spent $197,500 last year lobbying Beacon Hill, according to filings with the secretary of state. Dong Energy spent $55,000 on lobbying last year, according to the filings.
Still, the projects face myriad federal and state regulatory hurdles, as well as opposition from business groups and power generators who strongly oppose government carve-outs and subsidies for clean energy.
Likewise, wind farm projects in New York and Maine face opposition from those unhappy that the intrusive developments are benefiting other states.
"We don't want to become a wind plantation for Southern New England," said Chris O'Neil, a member of the nonprofit group Friends of Maine's Mountains. "If they need more energy, they should be investing in their own infrastructure."