One of the most consistent arguments made in favor of renewable energy is that it will create jobs – lots of jobs. But as offshore wind development picks up steam in the United States, the role labor unions will play in manufacturing and deploying the 8,000 or so components in each turbine remains uncertain.
While major unions have aided the industry by advocating for legislation supporting offshore wind, other local labor groups have hesitated, especially as much of the initial manufacturing will take place overseas.Offshore wind groups can offer tempting numbers on the industry’s job-creation potential: The Department of Energy estimated the industry could support 43,000 full-time jobs by 2030, and another industry-backed study in 2012 projected offshore wind could support 70,000 jobs in the Mid-Atlantic region alone.”There are many very, very supportive unions – and have been from the beginning,” said Catherine Bowes, senior manager of the National Wildlife Federation’s Climate and Energy Program, who has worked to gain organized labor’s support for offshore wind in the Northeast. “They drool over the steel and concrete and scale.”
Brad Markell, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, agreed. “In general yes, labor likes offshore wind, and we’re supportive of the kind of incentives that it takes to get it done,” he said.
But, Markell added, “if there are government incentives involved, then buy-America provisions should be attached to them, so when the government is spending money, we’re creating a lot of jobs here.”
Bowes acknowledged some unions become leery when they see U.S. offshore wind companies sending much of their initial investment overseas. The United States lags far behind Europe in offshore wind development, and as a result, much of the early manufacturing is taking place in the European Union.
Last week, Deepwater Wind announced it had made a multimillion-dollar payment to French manufacturer Alstom for the production of its five turbines, and The New York Times recently reported that a Massachusetts-based steel tank manufacturer had lost Cape Wind’s bid to a German company (ClimateWire, Feb. 11).
Because offshore wind manufacturers across the Atlantic have a two-decade head start, “the early projects, I think it’s really smart of the investment community to … stand on the shoulders of the Europeans,” Bowes said, “but that’s not the long-term pathway for the industry.”
And when it comes to the construction, operations and maintenance of offshore wind farms, stateside jobs are more certain, added Michael Williams, director of policy and legislation with the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of labor unions and environmental groups. “That’s all stuff that truly can’t be outsourced,” he said.
Unions want guaranteed jobs
When job potential is guaranteed, union groups have proved an important ally to groups pushing government policies in support of offshore wind.
Maryland’s Offshore Wind Energy Act, enacted last year, includes a provision “that virtually guarantees that any construction of offshore wind farms will involve project agreements, will involve union labor,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Tidwell recruited a number of Maryland-based unions to advocate for the act and said they played an important role in bringing state policymakers on board.
“It really helps to have labor unions involved,” Tidwell said.
But in New York, organized labor wants solid job number estimates before it provides political backing, said Jeff Jones, coordinator with the BlueGreen Alliance. The alliance is attempting to build a coalition in support of offshore wind in New York to persuade state policymakers to invest heavily in the industry.
“Organized labor would be an important ally in that,” Jones said, “but before they make a commitment to make it a priority above some of their other issues, they need to know that the jobs that would be created would be jobs in New York first of all, in the United States second of all. They don’t want to put a lot of effort into supporting a project which would then be creating jobs in China.”
One effort to convince labor unions that offshore wind will create local jobs is being spearheaded by Paul Shatsoff, director of government relations and clean energy programs with the Workforce Development Institute (WDI).
At a panel discussion last week at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C., Shatsoff touted WDI’s New York Offshore Wind Supply Chain Database Project, a website where New York businesses can register as potential providers of parts, labor and professional services for offshore wind. So far, about 100 businesses have registered.
But Shatsoff, who has worked with Jones to try to build a union coalition supporting offshore wind, agreed that an accurate, state-scale jobs assessment is still needed to bring local labor groups on board: “Until we have those numbers, they don’t really want to hear from us,” he said.
Will New Bedford’s workers come from N.J.?
In a town where offshore wind might actually take off soon, industry insiders are already experiencing growing pains finding and training local union workers.
New Bedford, Mass.’s unemployment rate has hovered over 10 percent since the 2008 economic slowdown, so city officials have decided to bet on offshore wind in a big way to revitalize the local economy. The port city is accessible to both Cape Wind’s planned offshore wind farm and Deepwater Wind’s planned Block Island Wind Farm, two approved projects poised to make headway this year.
In May 2013, state and local leaders broke ground on the 23-acre New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, the first built specifically for offshore wind in the United States.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), which is overseeing the project, signed a project labor agreement that obligates contractors to hire union workers during the terminal’s construction. But according to Matt Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, finding local union labor for the $100 million project has proved “a very difficult trick.”
The 2008 financial crisis left New Bedford low on trained union laborers, Morrissey said, and the terminal project has taken some heat from the community because most of the workers from Marine Local 25, which is currently providing dredging labor for the project, are from New Jersey, where the union is based.
“In our public meetings that we hold once a month, when you put those jobs numbers up … and 24 people are coming from New Jersey, that does not sit well,” Morrissey said. “We want to ensure that our local population has those opportunities for training. We have to make sure that we’re not importing people from other regions, other states.”
Bill White, MassCEC’s director of offshore wind sector development, anticipates that local union jobs are likely to pick up as the project moves into later, land-based construction phases: “Much of those workers are from the local union halls,” he said.
White was confident that the U.S. workforce currently has the skills to assemble and deploy the turbine components that will, at first, be shipped over from Europe. Moreover, “as projects move forward over the next several years … I think that’s when you’ll see the manufacturing move stateside,” he said.
New Bedford is now working with the University of Massachusetts, local community colleges and technical high schools to train young people to work in offshore wind. Building a local workforce for an as-yet emerging industry is a challenge, but it is one Morrissey thinks will bring strong unions and well-paying jobs back to his community.
“I see that this is an opportunity for real resurgence in organized labor,” he said.
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