Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Thursday announced a planned six-year $180 million initiative—including an initial commitment of $20 million this year—to accelerate the deployment of four offshore wind power projects in the U.S. The funds are subject to congressional appropriations.

The DOE will focus the initiative on “highly innovative technologies that will achieve large cost reductions over existing offshore wind technologies.” The demonstrations are expected to  address key challenges associated with installing utility-scale offshore wind turbines, connecting offshore turbines to the power grid, and navigating new permitting and approval processes.

Applicants to the competitive solicitation are expected to form a  consortia of energy project developers, equipment suppliers, research institutions and marine installation specialists. Energy Department funds may be used to cover up to 80% of a project’s design costs and 50% of the hardware and installation costs. Letters of intent are due on March 30 and applications are due on May 31, 2012.

The DOE says offshore wind is an enormous potential resource—estimated at more than 4,000 GW— in the U.S., particularly in the Atlantic, Pacific, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. But to date, the U.S. has no offshore wind farms, though several are in the pipeline in various stages of development.

By comparison, the European Union’s 27 members had collectedly installed 3.8 GW of offshore nameplate capacity at the end of 2011. But even in the EU has offshore wind growth slowed significantly, notes a new report from the EurObserv’ER barometer: Compared with more than 1.1 GW of offshore wind installations over 2010, only 788.1 MW of new capacity was installed in 2011.

Sources: POWERnews, DOE, EurObserv’ER barometer