America’s first offshore wind farm could help struggling cities

AWhile many industrial towns in New England have fallen into decline over the past decades, the wealthiest residents of Martha’s Vineyard, a regional center of wealth and privilege, have enriched themselves by building and rebuilding mega-houses in seaside. But their good fortune has hardly benefited everyone on the island, where economic inequalities are endemic. For Michael Friedman, a 55-year-old computer engineer, rising prices driven by the growing wealth of wealthy residents made it harder to stay and raise his family on the tree-covered island of Massachusetts where he grew up. “What can you say?” he said as he passed the Obama family Wine property end of October. “We will try to get out of this. “

Today, 15 miles off the coast of the island, a new green energy project is underway and many are hoping it will begin to spread wealth. In a few months, workers will begin erecting 837-foot-tall wind turbines for Vineyard Wind, the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm. When fully operational, the plant will produce 800 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 400,000 homes. More than a dozen other offshore wind projects on the east coast are awaiting government approval, and the plans portend a whole new clean energy industry, with thousands of new, well-paying jobs to accompany it.

Workers participate in a sea survival training course at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, Massachusetts.

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But there is a catch: hardly any American worker has experience building and operating offshore turbines. Community organizations, unions and colleges are now filling this gap by launching training programs in a broad effort to create a new American offshore wind workforce. For organizations that have invested a lot of time and money in education programs for projects that don’t yet exist, these efforts are a leap of faith in a way. The same goes for workers who take these courses, hoping that a whole new clean energy industry, eager to hire, will be waiting for them on the other side.

Friedman is one of those future wind workers. For months, he took online courses for a certification in offshore wind technology through ACE MV (Adult & Community Education Martha’s Vineyard) and Bristol Community College. He is taking the course in part out of personal interest, although he says he would consider changing careers if the opportunity arose. But with Vineyard Wind more than a year and a half away from power generation, it’s far from certain that the work he and his comrades do will translate into employment. Offshore wind has barely been on the horizon for decades, with endless legal battles to grind a previous Massachusetts company, Cape Wind, shutdown in 2017. Things may be different with Vineyard Wind – the project is located further offshore and hasn’t faced the same intensity of local backlash – but many, like Friedman, remain skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

Still others dive into it. On a cool November morning, a handful of workers from Piledrivers Local 56 shivered as they floated in the icy water of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts for a training session. At a previous safety conference, one of the workers, Nick Fileccia, had made a few jokes. Now, after the piledrivers donned bright orange survival suits and slipped off a dock into the blue-gray water, he was very serious. “Dude, that water,” he said after stepping out for 30 minutes in the freezing bay, during which he and his classmates had to right an overturned life raft. “I was just kidding until we got into that water.”

Briana Palmarin climbs a ladder to simulate the ascent of a wind turbine.

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Paul Doolan floats in the water during an emergency survival course.

Tony Luong for TIME

This exercise was part of a Global Wind Organization (GWO) training program designed to prepare millwrights, ironworkers and other tradespeople for the unique challenges of working at sea. In addition to sea survival modules and classroom components, it includes sections on working at heights, first aid and fire safety. “A lot of that teaches them skills that we hope they never have to use,” says Mike Burns, director of the Center for Maritime and Professional Training at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “Practicing an emergency wind turbine evacuation is something you hope you never have to do in real life, but you are glad you were trained to do it. The academy is currently one of the only places in the United States where workers can get this type of training, but it could soon be offered in many other places along the East Coast.

Labor organizations are among the biggest supporters of these programs. The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Carpenters Council, for example, is considering upgrading a training facility in New Jersey with a mock-up wind turbine, cranes and other equipment. “We’re about $ 700,000, $ 800,000 so far,” says William Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of the organization. Meanwhile, the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council plans to increase class sizes in existing training programs to increase the number of workers it can prepare for the local offshore wind projects planned. “We are really at the very beginning, at the precipice, of offshore wind on the East Coast,” says union president Gary LaBarbera. And as Vineyard Wind kicks off, the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, another union, plans to set up some sort of offshore worker training pipeline, starting new workers on the onshore parts of the project, like sub construction. power stations and then moving them out to sea. “This is how you develop a stable and skilled workforce for this industry,” says union president Frank Callahan.

Meanwhile, Bristol Community College, where Friedman is currently studying, is investing $ 10 million in launching what he calls the National Offshore Wind Institute. The facility, scheduled to open in 2022, will focus on training workers (rather than teaching courses for college credits) and offer programs on other aspects of the offshore wind industry, like finance and insurance. Jennifer Menard, vice president of economic and business development at the college, says her goal is to help replicate the economic investment that offshore wind has spurred in cities like Cuxhaven in Germany and Hull in the UK Facilitating a such renewal, Menard says, means stepping up investment in education to fill the gaps in the current US workforce. “I saw what offshore wind could bring,” she says. “It was just an opportunity we wanted to be ready for.”

Workers preparing to erect new offshore wind farms along the US East Coast in the coming years are learning how to do their jobs at sea and being trained in emergency survival skills.

Tony Luong for TIME

Europe, where offshore wind is a long established industry, can also provide an ideal training ground for American workers. Orsted, a Danish offshore wind giant, brings in more than a dozen American workers to train at its European sites for months. The idea, according to Mikkel Maehlisen, Orsted’s operations manager in North America, is to create an elite group of workers who can in turn train more Americans as the U.S. business, like a 700-megawatt wind farm off Rhode Island, is starting up.

Despite this wave of investment in training, some U.S. union leaders fear that as the country decarbonises, an expansion of offshore wind will not provide as many jobs as its supporters hope, especially compared to the expected loss of labor-intensive fossil fuel. plant projects. David Langlais, commercial director of Ironworkers Local 37 in Rhode Island, is particularly concerned that many offshore wind jobs come from manufacturing turbine components – an industry based largely in Europe – rather than ‘Erect and maintain such equipment at sea. “There will be a tremendous amount of hours that the American workforce will waste,” he said.

Langlais wants offshore wind turbine manufacturers like GE, which supplies turbines to the Vineyard Wind project and manufactures many of its components in France, to produce turbines and similar gear nationwide – a goal that offshore wind developers say support. Orsted, for example, brought in ironworkers from Local 37 to help erect a massive steel structure in the port of Providence, RI, which will be used to build the foundations for the company’s offshore turbines. And despite his reservations about offshore wind, Langlais says his union is committed to the green energy transition.

“I’m not a scientist, but it’s clear that we have more hurricanes, that we make storms worse, it’s hotter,” Langlais says. “There is obviously something to this climate change, and it has to do with carbon emissions. So we have to do the right thing. “

Paul Doolan, Nick Fileccia and Gerard Mullin during a heavy equipment moving exercise with instructor Megan Amsler.

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Back on Martha’s Vineyard, Miles Brucculeri, 44, studies hard despite his doubts about his future job. He has worked as a surf instructor for the past two decades, but is unsure how much longer he will be able to swim the daily five miles that such a job requires, and he has been frustrated with the lack of work opportunities. local with health benefits over the long offseason. “Either you’re serving rich people in this kind of bogus rich economy or there’s not much here,” he says. At present, Brucculeri has been on the Bristol Community College offshore wind training course for 11 months. By the time it is finished, Vineyard Wind’s offshore wind turbines will still have at least six months of power generation. Even after they go live, there is no guarantee that they will be hired as a technician. But for offshore wind to take off in the United States as elsewhere in the world, more people like it will need to take the plunge. “The opportunity arose, so I took it,” says Brucculeri. “I don’t know where this is going to lead.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at [email protected]

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