The growing offshore wind industry is often touted as a boon for job creation, but who will do the work?
The U.S. energy secretary and Danish wind developer Orsted say they want American union workers to build offshore wind farms to dot the U.S. coastlines — the building trades workers who could otherwise be left out of a transition to renewable resources.
A majority of onshore wind and solar farms have been built either with non-union workers or without collective bargaining agreements, except for in California where unions are more involved in the industry, according to North America’s Building Trades Unions. Orsted signed a project labor agreement this month with the national union representing 3 million people in the building trades to construct the company’s U.S. offshore wind farms with an American union workforce.
“Our recent experience in the last two decades with onshore wind and solar has been that the majority of those projects are not built with us,” NABTU Secretary-Treasurer Brent Booker said last week. “So this is groundbreaking in setting the standard for an emerging industry here.”
The Biden administration wants to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, generating enough electricity to power more than 10 million homes. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited the New London State Pier facility last week to see how Orsted, energy provider Eversource and the state of Connecticut are transforming it into a hub for the offshore wind industry.
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At a press conference after, the Democratic governor and Democratic congressmen spoke about creating American jobs — messaging that will surely play into their reelection campaigns.
Gov. Ned Lamont said there are “hundreds of good paying jobs right here” and “we’re just getting started.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal thanked the unions, saying “this is the future of energy in the United States of America right here.” U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said they’re maximizing every opportunity for the state to grow in a sustainable way.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, the only one not up for reelection, echoed the same message, saying offshore wind is the “holy grail of public policy” because it creates jobs, helps the local economy, makes the country more secure and helps save the planet.
Flanked by building trades members, Granholm said the administration is committed to creating “union jobs in America in this clean energy economy.” She said she wants predominantly American union workers to build U.S. offshore wind farms and would like to see project labor agreements in all aspects of the energy transition, drawing cheers from workers at the pier.
“That’s what we’d like, all union,” she told The Associated Press.
Allison Ziogas, Orsted’s U.S. labor relations manager, said one of the reasons they sought the agreement with NABTU was to assure workers, particularly in the fossil fuel industry, that they can have good-paying jobs in offshore wind.
“There is not the same level or quality of jobs with the solar industry, so it’s kind of created a false narrative that you can have good jobs or a healthy climate but not both,” she said. “And we really recognized that if we didn’t have everyone on board, we knew how things would wind up. It would wind up in gridlock.”
Orsted currently has six projects in five states. The “National Offshore Wind Agreement” covers contractors working on those projects and future ones, with no termination date on the project labor agreement. It sets the terms and conditions for union workers to build offshore wind farms, with targets to ensure a diverse workforce. It contains provisions for training to ensure they can construct the complex infrastructure.
Ziogas said nearly all of the total work hours on each project will be done with union labor, with a team from abroad with experience installing turbines supporting the offshore work. She said Orsted is committed to “creating an American industry,” and hopes the agreement sets the bar for it.
Keith Brothers, head of the building trades in Connecticut, said he briefly spoke with Granholm at the pier about the project labor agreement. Brothers said it’s about creating opportunities, not only for a longtime tradesman but also for a new apprentice looking for a career in the emerging U.S. offshore wind industry.
“That’s what’s exciting about it, it’s new. We really don’t know what it’s going to bring or how many jobs. But we know it’s a lot,” he said. “We know it’s new and there’s a lot coming.”
The first U.S. offshore wind farm began operating off Block Island, Rhode Island, in late 2016. Orsted acquired the developer and now operates that five-turbine wind farm. The first commercial-scale project is off the coast of Massachusetts.
The Biden administration has also approved the construction and operations for South Fork Wind, a joint venture between Orsted and Eversource. Its transmission system will connect to the electric grid on Long Island, New York, making it the state’s first offshore wind farm and jumpstarting the offshore wind industry there. The onshore construction started in February.