Inside Clean Energy: Who’s Ahead in the Race for Offshore Wind Jobs in the US?

Virginia’s offshore wind announcement this week follows big steps by New Jersey, New York and others.

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A Dominion Energy rendering shows a wind turbine installation vessel. Credit: Dominion Energy
A Dominion Energy rendering shows a wind turbine installation vessel. Credit: Dominion Energy

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On a breezy morning this week, politicians gathered near the water in Portsmouth, Virginia, to talk about offshore wind energy and jobs.

Siemens Gamesa of Spain, a manufacturer of wind turbines, was announcing plans for up to 310 jobs in the region as part of the ramp-up to building what will be the largest offshore wind farm in the United States.

“Let me start off by saying, in a real quick word, ‘Wow,’” said Portsmouth Mayor Shannon Glover.

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The wind farm, announced in 2019, would have a generating capacity of 2,640 megawatts, more than three times that of the Vineyard Wind 1 project off the coast of Massachusetts that I’ve called “super-sized” more than once.

But generating capacity is a hazy concept for most people. The easier to understand numbers are jobs, which helps to explain why Virginia officials made a big deal of Siemens Gamesa’s commitment.

Offshore wind will lead to jobs for Virginia and the country. But the number of jobs will depend on whether there is a sustained push for development that would justify companies opening offices and building factories. Virginia has indicated its commitment through a 2020 law that set a target of developing 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2034.

We’re mostly talking about onshore jobs here, since offshore wind farms require few people to operate them once they’ve been built. Most of the jobs are in manufacturing and support services.

The growth of clean energy manufacturing jobs is an essential part of showing that the transition away from fossil fuels is good for workers and the economy. This growth can act as a counterweight to the argument made by some politicians and companies that wind and solar power are harmful to the economy because they are contributing to the loss of fossil fuel jobs.

States and metropolitan areas are competing to become hubs of land-based jobs for offshore wind.

Here is how Siemens Gamesa’s announcement fits into the national picture:

  • New Jersey has a head start in securing offshore wind jobs, with announcements of several onshore projects. The largest was in December, when Ørsted of Denmark and EEW of Germany said they would open a factory to build the steel foundations of turbines—called monopiles—that would provide up to 500 jobs. The plant would open in 2023 and be located at the Paulsboro Marine Terminal on the New Jersey side of the Philadelphia metro area.
  • New York has several projects in the works, in conjunction with companies that serve the offshore wind industry. Among them is a plan announced in August by Marmen of Canada, Welcon of Denmark and Smulders of Belgium to build a plant that would make steel towers for offshore wind turbines and employ up to 350 people. The plant would open in 2023 at the Port of Albany on the Hudson River.
  • Other states, including several in New England, are working to develop offshore wind hubs in port cities, but they haven’t announced corporate jobs commitments as large as those of New Jersey, New York and Virginia, according to project information shared by the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a trade group.

Up to 260 of the jobs in Virginia announced by Siemens Gamesa would be in a blade finishing plant, “where cast blades go through post-treatment, painting and assembly processes readying the blades for installation,” said Kaile Gurney, a Siemens Gamesa spokeswoman.

The blades will be produced somewhere else and then shipped to Virginia for finishing. Siemens Gamesa didn’t say which plant would be making the blades. The company manufactures offshore wind turbine blades at factories in Denmark and the United Kingdom, among other locations. A plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, makes blades for onshore wind turbines.

In addition, Siemens Gamesa said it will hire about 50 people for operation and maintenance of the offshore wind farm. That, plus the finishing plant, adds up to 310 jobs in Portsmouth and the surrounding region.

My first reaction upon watching a broadcast of Monday’s news conference was that local, state and federal officials were doing a lot of back-patting about a relatively small number of jobs. The speakers included Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

But close observers of the offshore wind industry told me that the significance wasn’t the number of jobs but the fact that a major global player in offshore wind was putting down roots in Virginia. Siemens Gamesa was the global leader in offshore wind last year and it ranked fifth in the world in combined onshore and offshore wind power capacity installed, according to BloombergNEF.

“The announcement is significant because it represents a win for Virginia in the scramble between northeast states to secure as much of the offshore wind supply chain as possible,” said Chelsea Jean-Michel, an analyst focusing on the U.S. wind industry for BloombergNEF.

Siemens Gamesa also may be helping itself to secure future business, as the plant is well-positioned to supply turbines for other projects in Virginia and nearby states, she said.

Eileen Woll, offshore energy program director for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, used a retail analogy to explain why the factory is a big deal.

“This is like Neiman Marcus coming to the shopping mall,” she said. “It’s the anchor.”

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The idea is that Siemens Gamesa is likely to expand from this initial commitment, and that its presence will attract others, making the Hampton Roads region of Virginia a hub for the industry, Woll said.

The region includes Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake, among other cities. Nurturing the offshore wind industry is in keeping with the area’s history of maritime commerce.

The region also is highly vulnerable to sea level rise driven by climate change, threatening waterfront communities and military bases in the area.

The wind farm, called Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, is being developed by Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest utility. The company began with a 12-megawatt demonstration project that went online last year with two Siemens Gamesa turbines.

In June, Dominion filed its plan with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for the 2,640 megawatt wind farm. The plan calls for 180 Siemens Gamesa turbines, each standing more than 800 feet. The cost would be about $8 billion.

The federal filing starts the clock on a federal approval process that could take about two years. As we saw with Vineyard Wind 1, there is a potential for delays.

Dominion has said it expects the project to be completely built by 2026. By then, we should have a good idea of whether Virginia is succeeding at making itself into a hub for offshore wind.

But the discussion of clean energy employment is about more than the number of jobs. The jobs need to have high pay and good benefits, as several speakers said this week on the Portsmouth waterfront.

Among the key players are labor unions, which already have members in the Hampton Roads ports and in the other places aiming to be offshore wind hubs, and will be looking to represent workers at companies tied to offshore wind.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for many of the country’s largest unions, spoke last month about the potential of the offshore wind industry to be part of a foundation for a growing middle class, with ripple effects for other parts of the country and other renewable energy sectors.

“The path to a clean energy future runs right through our labor movement,” she said.

Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Tesla’s Market Value Surges to $1 Trillion: Hertz, the rental car company, said this week that it will convert 20 percent of its fleet to Tesla electric cars by the end of next year. The announcement, which means Hertz will be buying 100,000 vehicles from Tesla, helped to drive Tesla’s already highly valued stock to new heights, with a market capitalization that now exceeds $1 trillion, as Neal E. Boudette and Niraj Chokshi report for The New York Times. The company now has a market value that is more than the combined total of General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Honda and several other automakers. The high stock price is a sign of how Tesla has successfully appealed to a fan base of retail investors who are confident that the electric vehicle manufacturer is primed to dominate the automotive market of the near future. “Electric vehicles are now mainstream, and we’ve only just begun to see rising global demand and interest,” Mark Fields, Hertz’s interim chief executive, said in a news release.

Maine Voters to Cast Ballots on Controversial Power Line: A years-long fight over the construction of a transmission line across Maine is the subject of a referendum before voters next week. The $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project is already under construction, as its developers decided to move forward, even though they might have to stop again if voters approve the ballot measure that would prohibit the project. The power line would help to increase the flow of inexpensive hydroelectric power from Quebec to New England. Some power companies and environmental groups have a variety of concerns about the line, at the same time that others support the project, part of a complicated conflict that Tux Turkel explains in the Portland Press Herald.

A Missouri Utility Is Mining Bitcoin and Controversy: The utility Ameren has set up high-powered computers that run on a nearby power plant’s electricity and “mine” Bitcoin, the digital currency. Ameren has said that the project allows it to maintain a steady level of electricity generation at the nearby coal-fired power plant, rather than having to ramp the plant’s output up and down in response to changes in demand. This makes the plant more efficient, while also generating income, because the mining process leads to digital currency that Ameren can then sell. Critics say they “worry the data center is a ploy to artificially heighten demand for struggling coal plants, allowing them to run more than is justified,” as Bryce Gray reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Hawaii Has a One-Year Deadline to Ditch Coal: A Hawaii law passed last year blocks new utility contracts for coal-fired electricity. That means a coal-fired plant on the island of Oahu must stop operating by next September, when its contract ends. The law is contributing to a rush to develop clean power sources that could replace coal, a real-time demonstration of what rapid decarbonization looks like, as Julian Spector reports for Canary Media, part of his ongoing coverage of the energy transition in Hawaii.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to [email protected].

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