PORTLAND — The East Coast can cut its dependence on fossil fuels, grow its economy and create a clean energy future by tapping the vast wind resource blowing offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group said here today.

Flanked by Maine representatives from business, labor and environment groups, the National Wildlife Federation laid out a vision for how the Atlantic Seaboard can become a hub for ocean wind power. It also compiled state-by-state summaries of project proposals and other initiatives from Maine to Florida.

The group noted, however, that while European countries have 948 ocean turbines spinning with enough capacity to power more than 450,000 homes, not one is operating off the United States.

“This is a huge opportunity for Maine and the country,” said Catherine Bowes, a representative of the conservation group.

Despite that potential, wind power has emerged as Maine’s most divisive energy issue. Broad support from diverse interest groups, such as those who spoke at today’s news conference, is tempered by a small but vocal coalition of residents which questions whether the noise impacts, the visual presence of turbines spinning on ridgelines and the current high price of wind are justified.

It also seems doubtful that the incoming Republican majority in Augusta, led by Gov.-elect Paul LePage, will embrace wind power with the same enthusiasm as his predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci. LePage has expressed more interest in finding ways to lower electric rates in the short term. Wind power, by contrast, produces stable rates over time.

The 61-page report was released on a day when the merits of Maine’s current array of land-based wind farms were being lauded, criticized and judged.

At a Portland breakfast sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Maine, Baldacci and Cleveland Kapala, a top executive at Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada Corp., highlighted the jobs and investment linked to the firm’s Kibby Mountain project in western Maine. The project’s first phase generated $110 million of instate spending and 315 construction jobs, Kapala said.

In a meeting in Bangor, the Land Use Regulation Commission was deciding whether to allow TransCanada to build an addition to the Kibby Mountain project, an expansion opposed by anti-wind groups and some local residents.

Against this complex backdrop, the National Wildlife Federation and its supporters were trying to send a message to politicians and policy makers about offshore wind power: Maine and some other states have taken important steps to develop the resource, but continued support is needed in state capitols and in Washington, D.C., to maintain momentum.

Wind power costs more today than the nation’s leading sources of electricity generation, coal and natural gas. To compete, the industry relies on government financial incentives, as well as state and federal policies that encourage development of renewable energy sources.

The National Wildlife Federation calls itself the country’s largest conservation group. It has 4 million members, 10,000 of them in Maine. It considers global climate change – accelerated by burning coal, oil and natural gas – to be the single biggest threat to wildlife, leading to droughts, severe weather and habitat loss. 

At the Portland news conference, Bowes was joined by representatives from the Natural Resources of Maine, Environment Maine and the Conservation Law Foundation, which share those concerns. Also present were interests that benefit from wind power construction, including Parker Hadlock of Cianbro Corp., the state’s largest contractor, and John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, which wants to see more turbines delivered by ship.

“It’s important for our company, it’s important for our state and it’s important for our country,” Hadlock said.

Maine leads New England in the development of land-based wind farms. It has a total capacity of 266 megawatts in operation or being built, and has seen $800 million in investment, according to Paul Williamson, who directs the Maine Wind Industry Initative. Maine has a goal of 2,000 land-based megawatts by 2015.

Maine also has ambitious plans to install 5,000 megawatts of capacity far offshore by 2030, enough energy to power an estimated 1.5 million households and spark $20 billion in spending.

Maine has emerged as a national leader in deepwater wind development, with research centered at the University of Maine. It has three test sites identified, floating prototypes set to be deployed next year and proposals out for a 25 megawatt pilot project.

Offshore wind advocates were encouraged last month when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a federal plan to speed up siting of wind projects in the Altantic. It took nearly 10 years to get permits and leases for the controversial Cape Wind project off Massachusetts, a timeframe developers say is unworkable.

To help avoid future delays, wind advocates may need to appease critics and skirt costly legal challenges.

Groups including the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power point out that the megawatt output claimed for offshore turbines is only about 40 percent of the stated capacity, reflecting the amount of time the wind blows hard enough. That makes wind power too costly, they say, and not worth taxpayer subsidies.

“Those subsidy dollars could be better spent on conservation and efficiency,” said Steve Thurston, co-chair of the anti-wind task force.

But Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said conservation and efficiency can go only so far.

“You have to have some form of generation to power the economy,” he said. “You can’t do it with efficiency alone.”

Policy makers should consider jobs, clean air and other benefits of wind, Voorhees said, not just today’s price of electricity. If the cheapest possible power today was the only goal, he said, the only option would be to build coal-fired generators.

But the complexity of the issue was highlighted Tuesday, at a business forum in Augusta attended by LePage.

LePage asked Tom Patterson, a development manager at TransCanada, if he could sell wind energy to the state for 5 cents a kilowatt-hour. LePage asked the question after hearing business owners complain that Maine’s high electricity costs are putting them at a disadvantage with competitors in other states.

Patterson’s response was so detailed and nuanced that LePage said he didn’t understand it. LePage asked the same question two more times before Patterson finally gave him a simple answer, which was, “no.”

Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said explaining the cost of wind energy is one of the industry’s obstacles.

“That’s a reasonable question: ‘Can you give me cheaper power?’ Payne said. “But compared to what and compared to when? It’s really complicated how the market works. It’s not a 10-second sound bite.”

Staff writers Jon Hemmerdinger and Tom Bell also contributed to this report.