Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he expects the leasing process for wind projects off the Atlantic coast, including a “pioneering” backbone transmission project, to go forward early in 2012.

Salazar also announced Tuesday approval of wind and solar projects in the Southwest, and Deputy Secretary David Hayes said Interior is on track to meet Congress’ 2015 target, of 10,000 MW of renewables on federal lands, three years early.

For off-shore wind, Interior is beginning a 60-day comment period on the Atlantic Wind Connection’s rights-of-way application, to determine whether there are developers with competing projects who want access to the same subsea real estate.

The Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) has proposed a 7,000-MW line between Virginia’s Hampton Roads and New York City, which could interconnect proposed and future wind farms off Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey with cities along the route.

Unless there are “unexpected” competitors or issues raised, Salazar said, after the 60 days Interior could grant the AWC its needed rights-of-way, which he termed “a huge positive.” Investors, who include Google, would then have some certainty while Interior and AWC perform environmental impact studies and develop lease terms, he said.

AWC CEO Bob Mitchell said the decision would allow AWC to schedule with Interior ocean floor surveys and environmental studies, and lay out a timetable for getting needed permits. He said AWC is allowing a bit more than 24 months for that. Financial close in 2014 would allow construction with operation in 2017, which is when he believes off-shore wind farms will be ready to generate.

He said “one or two” projects to connect individual wind farms with the shore may traverse small parts of AWC’s requested route, and have conflicting rights-of-way requests, but he does not believe those will stop the backbone project.

The ocean is large,” Mitchell said. “There’s room.

Deputy Secretary David Hayes said Interior is also completing environmental assessments for four wind farms proposed along the AWC route and should be in position to move forward on the lease process for those locations in January.

Tommy Beaudreau, Director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said reviews are being conducted “in parallel,” so a holdup in one project will not affect any other. That will be particularly important if competing proposals emerge during any project’s comment period since, Hays said, “We don’t play favorites.” But as long as no one else wants the same subsea space, he said, “We will work with the applicant.”

Officials stressed they are working on off-shore wind projects that have firm backing from state governors, Democrats and Republicans. Salazar said the Atlantic state governors share a “unity of purpose” and belief in the future of off-shore wind.

The Delaware project is in sudden doubt, as developer NRG announced just eight days ago that it had failed to find needed investors and was putting the project on hold, despite a contract for part of Bluewater Wind‘s power with utility Delmarva Power & Light. NRG said Congress’ decision to abolish a loan guarantee program it counted on and failure to extend wind production tax credits beyond 2012 made the project uneconomic.

Beaudreau said, however, that “active discussions” are still going on with NRG and refused to “speculate” on Bluewater’s future.

Mitchell said the AWC does not depend on any single wind farm for its economics, and the loss of Bluewater would not stop AWC’s plans.

NRG spokesmen could not be reached for comment.

Salazar also announced Interior is approving two renewables proposals on federal land in the Southwest: NextEra Energy Resources‘ Sonoran Solar Energy Project and Iberdrola Renewables’ Tule Wind Project.

The solar project will generate up to 300 MW and create 374 jobs in peak construction, Salazar said. The wind project will produce up to 186 MW and create 337 jobs. Both will feed into the California grid, he said.

Salazar said his department has moved from zero renewables on federal lands to 6,500 MW and intends to keep going, on both solar and wind, on-shore and off. He said the Atlantic OCS is relatively shallow and he is “very optimistic” about wind there. Hayes added that even deeper sites have attracted wind business interest, citing a Statoil inquiry about a deepwater site off Maine.

Photo Caption: US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies during a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee November 16, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was focused on ‘The Future of US Oil and Natural Gas Development on Federal Lands and Waters.’