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Op-Ed: Offshore Wind Offers Opportunity in Post-Pandemic Economy

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Image copyright AWEA

By Laura Morton 05-06-2020 06:18:00

As we begin to cautiously look at economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans will be searching for opportunities and businesses will need avenues to rebound. Restoring our economy and prosperity will require new thinking and building industries from scratch, starting from the bottom and working up.

Today, U.S. offshore wind is offering us that generational opening. We can bring a largely untapped ocean energy resource to American shores and create a world of opportunity in the process. A recent AWEA report finds that bringing the country’s offshore wind project pipeline to fruition will create economy-wide benefits in the form of jobs, a new American supply chain, and revitalized port and coastal communities. States up and down the East Coast have made substantial offshore wind commitments as they look to supply many of the country’s largest population centers with competitively priced, reliable, clean energy. From Massachusetts to Virginia, these pledges now total nearly 26,000 megawatts (MW), enough to power millions of American homes and help keep utility costs stable for residents. 

Meeting these targets will require constructing thousands of offshore wind turbines, and that means well-paying jobs for a diverse workforce, including welders, wind technicians, electricians, longshoremen, vessel operators. In fact, 74 different occupations are needed to build and maintain an offshore wind farm, according to the Workforce Development Institute. AWEA’s report finds that building 30,000 MW of offshore wind could support over 83,000 U.S. jobs by 2030. It would also represent $57 billion of investment in the U.S. economy and deliver $25 billion of annual economic activity by 2030.

Many of these jobs will be in the supply chain, and this is a place where it’s instructive to look at land-based wind. As recently as 2007, only 100 U.S. factories built onshore wind components. However, after U.S. land-based wind power tripled in capacity during the 2010’s, over 530 wind manufacturing facilities are now operating across 43 states. As steel goes in the water and American offshore wind farms begin to come online, we’ll need facilities and workers here to build the supplies the industry needs. That will position wind power as one of the few industries creating new American manufacturing jobs. 

While many of these jobs will be located on the East Coast near operating wind projects, it’s important to remember offshore wind will create nationwide benefits and job opportunities. We’ll need to tap into the expertise of communities and workers throughout the country to get the job done. For example, Gulf Coast companies whose primary business involves offshore oil and gas helped construct the first U.S. offshore project, Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm. The Gulf knows how to build ocean energy infrastructure, and workers in the region will play a key role in building East Coast offshore wind projects. Offshore wind offers legacy energy companies a way to diversify their businesses so they can thrive even during oil and gas downturns, which many are currently experiencing. 

Jobs and a supply chain are just the beginning—the community investments are real too. So far, companies have announced investments of $307 million in port-related infrastructure, $650 million in transmission infrastructure, and $342 million in U.S. manufacturing facilities and supply chain development. These are just the publicly known figures. We’ve seen other announcements to establish offshore wind hubs and factories along the coast that have not yet listed a specific dollar amount but represent millions of additional dollars invested. Companies have also signed contracts to build four new U.S.-flagged crew transfer vessels to support offshore wind project development, which is a preview of the ship building activity to come as we grow our offshore wind pipeline.

Once-in-a-generation opportunities are rare by definition, and we still have work to do to fully take advantage of those offered by offshore wind. It’s crucial the Department of Interior establish transparency and consistency in the regulatory process, continue processing plans submitted by offshore wind developers, and finalize additional wind energy areas and subsequent lease areas that can be auctioned. Offshore wind’s benefits are too high to risk missing, and it may be a long time before we get another opportunity this big.

Laura Morton is Senior Director, Policy & Regulatory Affairs, Offshore at the American Wind Energy Association. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.