A service vessel passes by wind turbines of the German offshore wind farm “Amrum Bank West” near the Heligoland archipelago of the North Sea. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

After years of fighting the expansion of drilling off the Atlantic coast, environmentalists scored a rare double victory this week in which oil lost ground to wind energy.

In a surprising about-face, the Interior Department pulled back its controversial plans to allow oil drilling off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Citing concerns from the Pentagon and also from coastal communities in these states, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, “It simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

Climate activists and environmentalists were ecstatic — and that was just the beginning. The next day, the department announced a move to create a large offshore wind area 11 miles south of Long Island and extending to the Southeast in the shape of a thin triangle, over some 127 square miles. It will be called the “New York Wind Energy Area.”

The New York development proves “that the U.S. can move rapidly to develop clean energy sources off the Atlantic coast, rather than drilling for the dirty fossil fuels of the past,” Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for the United States for Oceana, an ocean-focused environmental group, said in a statement.

The new wind energy area off the New York coast emerges in response to an initiative by the New York Power Authority, the Long Island Power Authority and Con Edison — which have formed a group called the Long Island-New York City Offshore Wind Collaborative. In 2011, the group filed an application with the federal government for a 350 to 700 megawatt wind farm in this area, in waters 60 to 120 feet deep, to directly power New York City and Long Island. It would have “the potential to be the largest offshore wind project in the country,” the collaborative said.

Now, the federal government is moving ahead on the matter, although there will be a “competitive leasing process,” meaning there are other potentially interested parties in wind in the area, beyond this group.

“This is a great day for New York, and our country as we continue to diversify our nation’s energy portfolio,” Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement. “The area is large enough for a large-scale commercial wind project, which could make substantial contributions to the region’s energy supply and assist local and state governments — including New York City — in achieving their renewable energy goals.”

The move comes as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) recently laid out a plan to get 50 percent of the state’s total electricity from renewables by 2030. Offshore wind will be a key piece of hitting that target, said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.

The site is rather ideal for sending power to the huge population just a few ocean miles away, Reynolds noted. “Part of the attraction for offshore wind development in New York is that you’d have the electricity demand very nearby, and you’d have the wind peaking in the late afternoon, when you have demand peaking as well,” she said.

The Interior Department has, so far, approved 11 Atlantic offshore wind energy leases, off Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The new “wind energy area” designation does not mean that an immediate lease sale will be held for the siting of wind energy off New York — rather, the next step of the process involves an environmental impact assessment. After that, there would be the potential for lease sales.

The United States remains far behind some other countries — such as Britain and China — in overall offshore wind development. So far, among other potential projects, construction has begun for Deepwater Wind’s projected 30 megawatt installation off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s expected to start operating this year.

In general, offshore wind is seen as a critical new development in the wind energy area because offshore turbines can tap into stronger winds to generate larger volumes of electricity. But development has been dramatically faster on land. Wind energy provided 4.7 percent of U.S. electricity last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a number that has been steadily growing in recent years.

The Energy Department’s “wind vision” for 2030 imagines getting 20 percent of U.S. electricity from this source. To do that, the nation will need far taller wind turbines on land — which can capture energy from more powerful winds and open up new areas to viable wind farms — and also major offshore developments.

Read more at Energy & Environment:

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