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National Grid’s deal to buy Cape Wind’s power boosts project

Cape Wind may have turned a critical corner.

Yesterday, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said the yet-to-be-built offshore wind farm has secured a long-term customer for its electricity: National Grid. It’s the kind of deal opponents had doubted the project could get.

“For Cape Wind, this is a tremendous step forward . . . [to say] yes, we can sell the power,’’ said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association, which today is wrapping up a two-day workshop in Boston on offshore wind power.

The agreement is one of several recent developments that could advance the project.

Key Massachusetts officials, including Democratic US Representative Edward J. Markey, have urged President Obama to push for federal approval of Cape Wind before next week’s United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen. World leaders could hammer out a blueprint for lowering greenhouse gas emissions and using more renewable power, such as energy from the 130 turbines Cape Wind wants to erect in Nantucket Sound.

The project has been challenged repeatedly in the Legislature, Congress, and the courts, but Cape Wind has overcome nearly all of the regulatory hurdles it has faced in the eight years since it was proposed, including winning a favorable environmental review from the federal Minerals Management Service.

Even so, obstacles remain. Cape Wind is awaiting a determination from the National Park Service. Native Americans from Cape Cod and the Islands who oppose the project have asked the agency to decide whether Nantucket Sound is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic places. A decision could be reached in the next few months.

Other opponents include Democratic US Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr., the temporary replacement for the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who was a Cape Wind opponent. Kirk recently wrote a letter urging that the project be delayed. But all four Democratic candidates for the Senate seat (Kirk is not running) have said they will push hard for the wind farm, a sign the political stalemate may end soon.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the leading group opposing the wind farm, has argued the project would threaten the environment and produce costly energy.

“I see this announcement as a moment of truth with Cape Wind,’’ said the alliance’s executive director, Audra Parker. “Public support would seriously erode if they knew how much this project would cost ratepayers and taxpayers.’’

According to data from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, electricity that’s generated offshore with wind could cost more than twice as much as power from plants fired by natural gas, depending on fluctuations in the price of natural gas.

National Grid’s deal to buy power from Cape Wind was characterized by supporters as a significant sign the project is viable, because it demonstrates there is a market for renewable energy.

The agreement was spurred at least in part by legislation signed last year by Governor Patrick that requires all investor-owned utilities in the state to enter long-term contracts to purchase renewable energy.

Patrick has set a goal of having 2,000 megawatts of wind-powered generating capacity in the state by 2020. To date, there are 15.1 megawatts – or enough to power nearly 4,000 homes.

Tom King, president of National Grid’s US operations, said the company wants to be a catalyst that helps to develop the US wind industry. The utility, he said, has not decided whether to purchase all or just some of the power Cape Wind generates.

“The issue is that Cape Wind ultimately can’t fund the project without a long-term contract, so we are going to step in,’’ King said. Once that wind power is available, he added, the company will start to ask, “How do we get it to market?’’

National Grid expects to hash out a detailed agreement quickly. Cape Wind’s developers are hoping to qualify for stimulus funds through a 30 percent tax credit available for renewable energy projects in operation by 2012.

“Clearly, if they want to get stimulus money and have things operational by 2012, we’re going to have to start talking,’’ said Marcy Reed, a senior vice president with National Grid.

How wind energy will reach consumers still must be determined. Most likely, Reed said, National Grid will develop new programs to sell power from Cape Wind.

The state’s Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary, Ian Bowles, yesterday told people at one of the wind association’s workshops that Patrick views wind power as a “vital part of our future.’’ Projects like Cape Wind will bring jobs to Massachusetts, he said, as will efforts by companies like American Superconductor Corp. in Devens, which is developing a super turbine primarily for offshore use.

Bowles also pointed to this week’s groundbreaking for the Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown, where blades for large turbines will be tested.

“We see this really as the birthing of a new industry,’’ Bowles said, “and my message from Governor Patrick is: Let’s get on with it.’’

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