US offshore winds strengthen, workers taught safety

At a 131-year-old maritime academy along Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, the people who will build the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm are learning the skills to stay safe while working around turbines at sea.

Some take on the duties quite easily since they are veterans of the marine fields or construction. For others, it’s completely new to using fall protection and sea survival equipment, climbing from a boat to a ladder to reach a turbine, and learning how to work hundreds of feet in the air.

Offshore wind developers are hiring, after years of touting the promise of tens of thousands of jobs the industry could create in the United States. To launch this new clean energy industry, they now need many workers with the right training and skills.

“It’s the sheer number of people we’re going to need in the timeframe we need them,” said Jennifer Cullen, senior director of labor relations and workforce development at Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts. “We’ve been fighting this feeling, we’ve been talking about it for so long, … is it actually coming? We tell people, yes, it’s here, it’s now.

“We are building the turbines next year and will be building many more wind farms after that,” he added.

Vineyard Wind is on track to become the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the US. The development follows the Cape Wind project, which would have been closer to the Massachusetts coast but failed after years of litigation and local opposition.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy is the only place in Massachusetts that currently offers the basic safety training designed by a nonprofit organization founded by wind turbine manufacturers and operators — the World Wind Energy Organization — although the training is offered in other states. Everyone going on an offshore wind farm must complete safety training and most developers meet the requirement with the GWO scheme.

The course is attracting unionists and others who want to work on future wind farms that the Biden administration wants to dot the U.S. coast to help fight climate change. President Joe Biden has set a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, to power more than 10 million homes and create 80,000 jobs.

The reward for offshore wind interns are jobs with an average salary approaching $80,000 per year.

Before arriving at the academy, students complete approximately six hours of online courses.

Then, wearing wetsuits, they practice getting off a boat in Buzzards Bay and onto a boarding ladder attached to a turbine – a dangerous part of the job, especially in rough seas.

Students step off the pier into the frigid waters of the bay to learn how to safely abandon a boat or turbine in an emergency. They inflate a life raft, climb in and right it when it’s upside down.

To prepare for working at heights, they use a harness and fall protection equipment to climb up and down a turbine ladder. They practice lowering themselves with ropes from a 20-foot (6.1 m) platform in the event of an emergency evacuation. And they save a fellow student who pretends to be injured.

One day is dedicated to basic first aid and CPR and putting out a small fire with fire extinguishers.

Many trainees will head for work at Vineyard Wind, 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the Massachusetts coast. With 62 turbines, the project is expected to generate 800 megawatts — enough electricity annually to power more than 400,000 homes, starting in late 2023. Work began onshore late last year.

Daniel Szymkowiak, a 36-year-old engineer, worked in the offshore oil and gas industry. He attended the maritime academy course in August and is now working on subsea wind farm cables for Vineyard Wind.

Szymkowiak switched careers, he said, because working in renewable wind energy made him feel better about the world’s future.

“It is and it is coming. To be the first commercial project in the states, it’s exciting,” he said. “To make a positive change for our country, to bring new opportunities, that’s why I’m here.”

Founded in 1891, the maritime academy has historically focused on Coast Guard-approved training for professional mariners. Anticipating the needs of the nascent US offshore wind industry, it expanded its courses to support offshore wind in 2019.

Over 200 people have completed basic safety training at the academy’s Maritime Center for Responsible Energy, in partnership with RelyOn Nutec. The center plans to use grants to expand its offshore wind courses with basic technical training, enhanced first aid and advanced rescue, said Michael Burns, the maritime center’s executive director. The safety class, offered twice a month, is held until the end of the year.

In the classrooms, there is a sense of excitement to work offshore, take on a new challenge and help jumpstart the industry, Burns said. He expects to see more schools and companies offering the training to meet the growing demand.

“We want to do everything in our power to help ensure that these projects can be completed on schedule,” Burns said.

In neighboring Rhode Island, Danish wind developer Orsted and utility Eversource are working with the state, Rhode Island Community College and union leaders to launch a basic safety training course there as well. Orsted and Eversource plan to build Revolution Wind, a 400-megawatt wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to provide power to Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The first US offshore wind farm opened on Block Island, Rhode Island in late 2016. But with five turbines, it’s not commercial-scale.

Cullen, of Vineyard Wind, said the role of education is to empower people to work for various developers and strengthen the workforce. Vineyard Wind also works with a Martha’s Vineyard program to prepare local residents for technician jobs.

Tyler Spofford has been working for GE Offshore Wind since January. The 35-year-old quit his job as a tugboat skipper to spend more time with his family.

Spofford said he is excited that the offshore wind industry is creating jobs, especially for sailors in the Northeast. There were few workboat jobs in the area after he earned his degree and license in 2009 at the Massachusetts Naval Academy. This led him to the Gulf of Mexico, where he worked in the oil and gas industry.

“Pretty much since I left school, offshore wind has always been a topic of discussion, but nothing that was actually happening at scale,” he said.

Then, Spofford said, “the stars aligned.” He now helps assess the Vineyard Wind project’s vessel needs, helps procure and contract for the vessels, and will manage them. He took the naval academy course in August.

“It feels like we’re part of this startup in a way,” he said. “We are faced with many challenges. It’s kind of fun to think about them and solve them and find a product and something that will work, a solution.”

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Follow Jennifer McDermott on Twitter: @JenMcDermottAP

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