Atlantic City is known for its casinos and beauty pageants, but the state is willing to gamble that harnessing the power of the wind that buffets the South Jersey sea town will be a thing of beauty all its own.

New Jersey selected a joint venture between state utility Public Service Enterprise Group (NYSE:PEG) and privately held Deepwater Wind to develop a 345-megawatt wind farm off the state's coastline, about 16 miles southeast of Atlantic City. The project is part of New Jersey's ambitious plan to develop 1,000 megawatts of capacity by 2012, and then to increase that to 3,000 megawatts by 2020, providing 13% of the state's energy needs.

Part of that plan includes jump-starting the offshore wind industry. There are no other offshore wind power projects in the country right now, though Bluewater Wind won the rights to build a wind farm off the Delaware coast, and Deepwater will be building one in the waters off Rhode Island.

Wind power has been in use for decades -- ignoring the old-style windmills that have been around for centuries. Even Atlantic City's local utility uses five windmills to generate 7.5 megawatts of electricity for some 2,500 customers. Yet the concept really seemed to gel in many people's minds when oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens unveiled his plan to wean the country off foreign sources of fuel.

Unfortunately, it's not easy for U.S. investors to reap the benefits of wind power. Many wind farm developers, like Deepwater and Blue Water, are privately held concerns. First Wind has plans to go public, though my Foolish colleague Tim Beyers has some cogent arguments for why investors might be whistling past the graveyard if they dive in right away. The biggest developer of wind farms is Danish-based Vestas, which isn't traded on major exchanges in the U.S. -- though you can pick up shares on the pink sheets.

Better opportunities might lie in turbine manufacturers like Siemens (NYSE:SI) or General Electric (NYSE:GE), but you're not investing in a pure play -- you'll get a lot of other baggage in the mix. The same is true of small-cap play Otter Tail (NASDAQ:OTTR), whose DMI Industries subsidiary manufactures towers -- so long as you don't mind the plastics, manufacturing, and dehydrated potato products that come with the wind exposure.

Perhaps the easiest option is to go with an exchange-traded fund like PowerShares Global Wind Energy, which invests not only in Vestas, GE, and Siemens, but also up-and-coming players like Zoltek (NASDAQ:ZOLT), American Superconductor (NASDAQ:AMSC), and others from around the world.

Such a move gives you the best names in the business, without having to determine which will be the winners and losers. A bet like that could earn some gorgeous returns for your portfolio.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.