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Promises, promises: The challenge behind the offshore wind jobs boom

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Daniel Ackerman
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CAI
Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council President David Araujo (seated, left) shakes hands with Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Pedersen (seated, right) as politicians and labor leaders look on following the signing of a labor deal for the Vineyard Wind 1 project in July.

In the coming years, thousands of Massachusetts workers will build a new industry almost from scratch: offshore wind.

Vineyard Wind 1 is set to become the nation’s first major windfarm at sea. The project will plop 62 turbines into federal waters about 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. And it’s just the starting line for a sector that could create 80,000 jobs nationwide by 2030, according to the Biden administration. That includes more than 100 different kinds of jobs, like vessel crew, crane operators and underwater welders.

So offshore wind means building more than just massive turbines in the ocean. It means building a workforce. But what will those jobs look like? Will the industry produce stable careers — or construction boomtowns?

‘On to the next offshore wind farm’

“The big amount of work comes in the construction of a windfarm — thousands of people,” said Kris Ohleth, who directs the Delaware-based thinktank Special Initiative on Offshore Wind.

Many of those construction jobs will pay solid union wages. Vineyard Wind recently agreed to hire at least 500 local union laborers for its first windfarm. Additional workers with prior offshore wind experience will come from Europe. But these numbers come with a disclaimer: construction is temporary.

“You can almost imagine construction jobs like in a boomtown,” said Ohleth. “You build the wind farm for two or three years, and then you kind of move on to the next offshore wind farm.”

Once built, Vineyard Wind 1 will require fewer than 100 workers to keep it running long-term, according to Vineyard Wind.

Ohleth said there’s another path for states hoping to create a glut of stable, long-lasting offshore wind jobs: manufacturing.

Made in Massachusetts?

Currently, the factories that churn out generators, gear boxes and turbine blades are located in Europe and Asia, which already have mature offshore wind industries. As more projects move through the federal approval process in the United States, much of that manufacturing is likely to land domestically — that could mean a jobs windfall for states where suppliers choose to set up shop.

Local leaders hope to bring manufacturing to Massachusetts, but they face hurdles — starting with a lack of elbow room along the waterfront.

“One challenge is just finding the space where you can manufacture components that are this big,” said Jennifer Cullen, Vineyard Wind’s Manager of Workforce and Supply Chain Development. She says a lot of Massachusetts’ ports are relatively small and crowded, while the turbine blades alone can be longer than the Statue of Liberty. “You can’t drive these blades down a road, so it really needs to be happening at a port facility.”

Another challenge to made-in-Massachusetts parts: competition with other states. Some, like New Jersey and New York, tend to award their offshore wind contracts to developers willing to invest in factories, according to Ohleth.

But when Governor Charlie Baker selected Vineyard Wind for Massachusetts’ first wind farm, he gave short shrift to that kind of broader economic development, said Pat Haddad, a state representative from Bristol County. “It’s my opinion that the governor is looking only at the price — only at ‘how cheap can we get this power?’”

Haddad said the price-focused approach has done little to lure suppliers to the Bay State. A company that makes turbine towers visited the port at Brayton Point in Haddad’s district. The company ultimately built its factory in the Port of Albany, New York, as part of a developer’s broader bid to build an offshore wind farm there. “All our governor has done is create a really great economic boom for the rest of the East Coast,” said Haddad.

But the Baker administration is courting manufacturers, according to Secretary of Energy and Environment Kathleen Theoharides. “One of the keys to underpinning manufacturing opportunities is providing updated port infrastructure,” she said.

Baker has proposed a $100-million investment in ports like New Bedford, Salem and Brayton Point, so they can better support manufacturing and assembly of turbine components. Plus, the state and its electric utilities are currently considering proposals for a third offshore wind farm — this time, overall economic development will factor more strongly into their decision, not just price.

“Obviously not every state is going to get every piece of the supply chain,” said Theoharides. “But we are positioning Massachusetts so we’re competitive to get a significant piece for the Commonwealth.”

The two developers vying for the next wind farm contract, Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind, have committed to significant investments in Salem and Fall River respectively if selected.

In the nearer term, the construction boom for Vineyard Wind 1 is set to get underway in New Bedford in the coming months. Mayor Jon Mitchell shares some of Haddad’s concerns about the state’s ability to attract manufacturing. But either way, he says offshore wind is a huge opportunity for his city and its workforce.

“We live in an America where the spoils over the last 20 years have gone to the superstar cities — here in Massachusetts, it’s Boston,” said Mitchell. “So we see offshore wind as one of those industries where we do have real advantages.”

This is part one of a report on jobs in the coming offshore wind industry. Part two is here.