ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Windmills off the East Coast could generate enough electricity to replace most, if not all, of the coal-fired power plants in the United States, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday.
But those numbers were challenged as "overly optimistic" by a coal industry group.
The secretary spoke at a public hearing in Atlantic City on how the nation's offshore areas can be tapped to meet America's energy needs.
"The idea that wind energy has the potential to replace most of our coal-burning power today is a very real possibility," he said. "It is not technology that is pie-in-the sky; it is here and now."
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Offshore energy production, however, might not be limited to wind power, Salazar said. A moratorium on offshore oil drilling has expired, and President Barack Obama and Congress must decide whether to allow drilling off the East Coast.
"We know there are some people who want us to close the door on that," he said. "We need to look at all forms of energy as we move forward into a new energy frontier."
Salazar said ocean winds along the East Coast can generate 1 million megawatts of power, roughly the equivalent of 3,000 medium-sized coal-fired power plants, or nearly five times the number of coal plants now operating in the United States, according to the Energy Department.
Jason Hayes, a spokesman for the American Coal Council, said he was puzzled by Salazar's projections. He said wind power plants face roadblocks including local opposition, concerns about their impact on wildlife, and problems in efficiently transmitting power from far offshore.
"It really is a stretch," he said of Salazar's estimate. "How you put that many new (wind) plants up, especially in deep water, is confusing. Even if you could do what he said, you still need to deal with the fact that the best wind plants generate power about 30 percent of the time. There's got to be something to back that up."