Offshore wind is on the verge of becoming a major new industry in the United States. There is pressure to make sure it creates lots of well-paying union jobs.
TO MARTINEZ, HOST:
President Biden likes to say that fighting climate change is about creating well-paying union jobs in addition to fixing environmental injustices. There is now a push to do both as the new offshore wind industry takes shape.
Miriam Wasser of member station WBUR in Boston reports.
MIRIAM WASSER, BYLINE: Billy Vietze stands at the bottom of a tall ladder inside the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. The 35-year-old ironworker from Boston is one of two dozen union workers who have come here to get certified for a construction job at the country’s first major offshore wind project, Vineyard Wind.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The first thing we’re going to do is get familiar with the scales.
WASSER: The men, many of whom have shaggy beards and lots of tattoos, wear safety harnesses and hard hats. They could work hundreds of feet above the ocean inside a wind turbine. And an instructor shows them how to use ropes and carabiners to arrest a fall.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It goes up and up and up. Law?
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Top, bottom, take it off.
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WASSER: Offshore construction on Vineyard Wind won’t begin until next summer, but Vietze is already imagining itself at sea.
BILLY VIETZE: I’m trying to get into this project here because it’s something that’s always interested me. And I’m happy to do it. I would like to be part of something that will be good for the environment.
WASSER: He also wants this job because he’s been feeling guilty ever since he and a co-worker helped build a controversial natural gas project just south of Boston a few years ago.
VIETZE: We knew it was bad for the environment. But the project was happening with or without our feelings about it. And we said to ourselves, it will make up for it.
WASSER: By the end of the decade, President Biden wants the country to install thousands of offshore wind turbines capable of generating 30 gigawatts of electricity. It would be like moving all the power plants in New England into the ocean. The White House says meeting this target could reduce carbon dioxide emissions while creating 77,000 jobs.
JON GROSSMAN: Creating jobs in itself is not the solution. Jobs should be good jobs and the people who need them should be the ones who get them.
WASSER: Jon Grossman is a union leader from Massachusetts. He says not all green jobs are good. Onshore wind and solar workers tend to earn less than those in coal, natural gas and oil, for example. This is why many unions are skeptical of green energy.
GROSSMAN: We are concerned about climate change. The problem arises when we feel we are being asked to pay a disproportionate share of the cost.
WASSER: It’s not every day that the United States creates a new industry like offshore wind from scratch. And there are high hopes for it, including the possibility of helping solve long-standing issues in labor law and environmental justice.
But the industry alone will not deliver on these promises, says Carol Zabin. She works at the University of California’s Berkeley Labor Center.
CAROL ZABIN: You have to be really intentional.
WASSER: Zabin says careful planning is needed by policymakers and developers to bring well-paying jobs to communities that need them.
ZABIN: I think it’s important to look at this as an industrial planning opportunity, which is sort of unheard of in the United States. We don’t plan. We are a market economy. We drop the shavings where they are and try to clean up the mess.
WASSER: She says states and the federal government can invest in training programs, like the one Vietze is taking. And states can sign contracts with wind developers who promise to do things like revitalize crumbling ports. Project collective agreements are another powerful tool. Earlier this summer, Vineyard Wind guaranteed that at least half of the 1,000 construction jobs for its project will go to unionized workers like Vietze. And of those jobs, 20% are reserved for people of color. But many experts point out that most future jobs in offshore wind will not be in construction. They will be part of what is called the supply chain, the onshore factories and suppliers that produce the 8,000 components needed to build a single turbine.
Ross Gould is part of the non-profit Business Network for Offshore Wind.
ROSS GOULD: We need manufacturing capabilities to be localized domestically in order to succeed with the Biden administration’s plan.
WASSER: When it comes to offshore wind, however, the US is behind. Currently, most of the factories that manufacture blades and towers are in Europe and Asia. The same goes for the special ships needed to install turbines as large as the Eiffel Tower. But given the future demand for offshore wind around the world, Gould says the United States has a unique opportunity to enter the market before it really takes off or before the wait time for parts. manufactured internationally from becoming untenable.
GOULD: Globally, the offshore wind industry is expected to be a $1 trillion industry by 2040. So we would want some of that pie to be localized nationally, right? ?
WASSER: There are efforts underway to start building these factories here. And Susannah Hatch of the Environmental League of Massachusetts wants states, wind developers and the business community to make sure they’re located in places where people of color or other underserved communities can get lots of these jobs.
SUSANNAH HATCH: You can’t just say, like, oh, yeah; we are going to do it. It takes a lot of hard work because a lot of that inequity is just baked into our society. And it’s going to take a lot of work to undo it.
WASSER: New Bedford, Mass. is a town that Hatch and others are watching. It is expected to be the onshore hub for the state’s first two wind projects. And others will probably follow. New Bedford is a diverse town that has long attracted immigrants to work in the fishing industry. But fishing isn’t what it used to be.
DANA REBEIRO: There hasn’t been a new industry in New Bedford for a while. Our levels of poverty are quite staggering.
WASSER: Former councilwoman Dana Rebeiro was born and raised in New Bedford. She is now a Community Liaison for Vineyard Wind and says her top priority is helping people find out about job opportunities. She knocks on doors, attends community events, and recently hosted a Zoom pizza lunch with girls as part of an afterschool program. As a black woman, she says she tries to inspire the next generation.
REBEIRO: And it’s really about making sure that when there are opportunities, we really go everywhere and let everyone know that those jobs are there, that mentorship program is there, that internship program is there, isn’t it?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Going down.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Okay.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Okay. Coming down.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Going down.
WASSER: Back to Mass. Maritime Academy, Billy Vietze watches his fellow union members stage a mock rescue.
VIETZE: I had a certain pride in every project I worked on, whether it was a school or a hospital. But it is something different.
WASSER: Vietze says he can imagine a day when he and his family fly out of Boston and pass the giant turbines emerging from the ocean. Look at this, he will tell his son. Your father helped build them. Your father helped create a new industry in the United States
For NPR News, I’m Miriam Wasser in Bourne, Mass.
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MARTINEZ: This story was co-reported with Ben Storrow of E&E News.
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