Experts say generating wind power over the ocean is more costly than on land - one reason that no plants have begun operating off any of the nation's coasts.
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is offering a grant of up to $19 million for a pilot project to see if offshore wind energy is feasible for the state.
Submitting proposals by Monday's deadline were Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., which owns the state's biggest utility, PSE&G; Bluewater Wind L.L.C.; and Fishermen's Energy of New Jersey L.L.C.
Bluewater also is seeking approval in Delaware for a 450-megawatt wind farm with 150 turbines 11.5 miles east of Rehoboth Beach. That plan has been approved by three of the required four state agencies, officials said.
Both states - and much of the Mid-Atlantic - are seen as promising locations for wind farms because breezes are steady and the continental shelf slopes gradually, allowing developers to build far offshore yet at depths of 100 feet or less.
The Pacific coast, by contrast, drops steeply, and offshore wind farms are not considered viable there.
Bluewater's head of strategic planning, Jim Lanard, said erecting turbines 151/2 miles off New Jersey, as his company proposes, would catch strong-enough winds outside the main migratory routes for birds and beyond the view of beach residents and tourists.
From that distance, he said, "the turbine is going to be half the size of a thumbnail and as thin as a toothpick."
New Jersey has made offshore wind an important part of a strategy requiring that 20 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2020.
Having a major source of power in the eastern part of the region's multistate power grid also could relieve congestion and bolster reliability. Most electricity used here is generated several hundred miles to the west.
Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association, said the three proposals in New Jersey were "a strong response. Obviously, there's growing interest in developing wind."
Last year, she said, new wind farms on land accounted for 30 percent of all new generating capacity in the country.
Although Europe has more than two dozen offshore wind farms, none are close to going online in the United States. In addition to Delaware, proposals are moving forward in Massachusetts and Texas, among other states.
Costs and opposition from seashore residents have been major hurdles. Projects in federal waters - more than three miles offshore, which would be the case in New Jersey - face temporary difficulties because federal regulations are still being developed.
And many offshore projects are incorporating new turbine technology instead of taking onshore technology and conditioning it for the marine environment, said Greg Watson, senior adviser for clean-energy technology with the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
In the New Jersey proposals, plants would be placed within a study area off the coastline specified by the utility commission:
PSEG wants to build 96 turbines 16 miles out and is looking at new technology that would allow them to be that far offshore and constructed at a lower cost, spokesman Paul Rosengren said.
Bluewater is proposing 116 turbines about 151/2 miles southeast of Atlantic City. Massive poles would be sunk 90 feet into the ocean floor, then extend through the water and 256 feet into the air, topped by 150-foot-long blades. Lanard said his company's experience suggested that they would be popular with tour boats. "People are going to be going out for picnics," he said.
Fishermen's Energy has proposed building 74 turbines in two stages - eight about three miles off Atlantic City, then the rest about six or seven miles out.
Fishermen's president Daniel Cohen, who also is president of the sea-scallop harvesting company Atlantic Capes Fisheries, noted that the U.S. fishing industry had historically opposed offshore wind because of the potentially harm to fishing.
But gradually, opinion has changed. Members of the consortium include owners of boats and commercial docks all along New Jersey's coast.
"We have chosen to treat offshore energy as an opportunity rather than a threat," Cohen said in a statement. He said the group was in a unique position "to harvest the sea for energy and fish, side by side, in an environmentally acceptable manner."
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said his group supported offshore wind power. "It's the first step to really implementing the governor's global-warming initiative."
Matt Elliott, clean-energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, said he was pleased the state had "interested developers who are aggressively thinking about how to move forward with wind power. . . . I can't wait to see them start construction."
It may be a while. Doyal Siddell, spokesman for the Board of Public Utilities, said the evaluation committee would hold its initial meeting within the next two weeks. But he declined to speculate on a timeline, give details of the three proposals, or even confirm that they had been received.
Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or email@example.com.