At a 131-year-old maritime academy along Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, people who will build the country’s first commercial offshore wind farm are learning the skills to stay safe while working on turbines at sea.
Some take on the quests fairly easily, being veterans of sea tiles or construction. For others, using fall arrest systems and survival gear at sea, climbing a ladder from a boat to get to a turbine, and learning how to work hundreds of feet in the air is entirely new.
Offshore wind developers are hiring after years of touting promises of tens of thousands of jobs the industry could create across the United States. Now, to start this new clean energy industry, they need lots of workers with the right education and skills.
“It’s the sheer number of employees that we’re going to need in the time frame that we need them,” said Jennifer Cullen, senior manager of industrial relations and human resources development at Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts. “We’re fighting this feeling of, we’ve been talking about this for so long, … is it really happening? We tell people yes it’s here, it’s now.
“We will build the turbines next year and we will build many more wind farms after that,” she added.
Vineyard Wind is on track to become the first commercial offshore wind farm in the United States. 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 developed by a nonprofit organization formed by wind turbine manufacturers and operators — the Global Wind Organization — although training is offered in other states. Anyone going to an offshore wind farm must complete safety training, and most developers meet the requirement with the GWO program.
The course attracts union workers and others eager to work on future wind farms that the Biden administration plans to puncture on U.S. shores to help fight climate change. President Joe Biden has set a goal of providing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 to power more than 10 million homes and create 80,000 jobs.
The payoff for offshore wind trainees are jobs that average nearly $80,000 per year.
Before arriving at the academy, students complete approximately six hours of online coursework.
Then, in waterproof suits, they practice disembarking from a ship in Buzzards Bay and climbing a swim ladder connected to a turbine — a dangerous part of the job, especially in rough seas.
Students step off the pier into the bay’s cool waters to learn how to safely exit a ship or the turbine in an emergency. You inflate a life raft, climb into it and right it up again when it’s upside down.
To prepare for working at height, they use a harness and fall arrest system to climb up and down the ladder of a turbine. They practice lowering themselves on ropes from a 20-foot platform in the event of an emergency evacuation. And they rescue a fellow student who is pretending to be injured.
One day is dedicated to the basics of first aid and CPR and they put out a small fire with fire extinguishers.
Many trainees will head to Vineyard Wind, 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the coast of Massachusetts. With 62 turbines, the project is expected to produce 800 megawatts – enough electricity to supply more than 400,000 households with electricity every year from the end of 2023. Work on land began late last year.
Daniel Szymkowiak, a 36-year-old engineer, used to work offshore in the oil and gas industry. In August he completed the Maritime Academy course and now works for Vineyard Wind on submarine cables for wind farms.
Szymkowiak changed his career, he said, because working in renewable wind energy gave him a better sense of the future of the world.
“It’s progressing. Being the first commercial project in the States is exciting,” he said. “To change our country positively, to open up new opportunities, that’s exactly what I’m here for.”
Founded in 1891, the Maritime Academy has always focused on Coast Guard-approved training for commercial seafarers. In anticipation of the needs of the burgeoning US offshore wind industry, she expanded her offshore wind energy support courses 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, executive director of the maritime center. The safety course, which is offered twice a month, is fully booked until the end of the year.
In the courses, there’s a sense of excitement about working abroad, taking on a new challenge and helping launch the industry, Burns said. He expects more schools and companies to offer the training to meet growing demand.
“We want to do everything we can to do our part to ensure these projects stay on schedule,” Burns said.
In neighboring Rhode Island, Danish wind developer Orsted and utility Eversource are working with the state, the Community College of Rhode Island and union leaders to launch a basic safety training course there too. Orsted and Eversource plan to build Revolution Wind, a 400-megawatt wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts to power Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The first US offshore wind farm opened in late 2016 off Block Island in Rhode Island. But with five turbines, it’s not on a commercial scale.
Vineyard Wind’s Cullen said the role of training is to qualify people to work for a variety of developers and augment the workforce. Vineyard Wind also works with a Martha’s Vineyard program to prepare local residents for engineering jobs.
Tyler Spofford has been with GE Offshore Wind since January. The 35-year-old gave up his job as a tugboat captain to spend more time with his family.
Spofford said he’s excited the offshore wind industry is creating jobs, particularly for seafarers in the North East. After graduating and earning his license from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2009, there were few workboat jobs in the area. That led him to the Gulf of Mexico, where he worked in the oil and gas industry.
“Pretty much since I finished school, offshore wind was always a thing that was kind of discussed, but nothing that was on a large scale really ever happened,” he said.
Then, Spofford said, the “stars are aligned.” He is now helping to assess the Vineyard Wind project’s vessel needs, assisting in procurement, contracting and managing the vessels. In August he took the course at the Maritime Academy.
“It kind of feels like we’re part of this startup,” he said. “We face many challenges. It’s fun to think through them and solve them and find a product and something that works, a solution.”
Follow Jennifer McDermott on Twitter: @JenMcDermottAP
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