US offshore wind intensifies, workers learn about safety

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By JENNIFER McDERMOTT, Associated Press

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

Some perform their duties quite easily since they are veterans of the maritime domains or construction. For others, it’s totally new to using fall protection and marine survival equipment, climbing a ladder from a boat to a turbine, and learning to work hundreds meters 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 a lot of workers with the right training and skills.

“That’s the number of people we’ll need in the time frame we need,” said Jennifer Cullen, senior director of labor relations and workforce development at Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts. “We fight this feeling of, we’ve been talking about it for so long, … is it really coming? We tell people, yes, it’s here, it’s now.

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

Vineyard Wind is set to become the first commercial-scale 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 location in Massachusetts currently offering the basic safety training designed by a nonprofit organization founded by wind turbine manufacturers and operators – the Global Wind Organization – although the training is offered in other states. Anyone who will be going to an offshore wind farm must complete safety training, and most developers meet the requirement with the GWO program.

The course attracts unionized workers and others eager to work on future wind farms the Biden administration wants to dot America’s shores to help fight climate change. President Joe Biden has set a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power 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 take approximately six hours of online lessons.

Then, dressed in waterproof suits, they practice getting off a ship at Buzzards Bay and up a boarding ladder connected to a turbine – a dangerous part of the job, especially in rough seas.

Students descend from the pier into the cold waters of the bay to learn how to safely abandon a ship or the turbine in an emergency. They inflate a life raft, climb into it and right it when it is upside down.

To prepare for work at height, they use a harness and fall protection equipment to ascend and descend a turbine ladder. They practice lowering themselves using ropes from a 20-foot (6.1-meter) platform in the event of an emergency evacuation. And they save a comrade who pretends to be hurt.

A day is dedicated to first aid and CPR, and they put out a small fire with fire extinguishers.

Many interns will go to work on Vineyard Wind, 15 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. With 62 turbines, the project is expected to produce 800 megawatts, enough electricity a year to power more than 400,000 homes, from the end of 2023. Work started on land late last year.

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

Szymkowiak changed careers, he said, because working in renewable wind power made him feel better about the future of the world.

“It’s up and coming. Being the first commercial project in the United States is exciting,” he said. “To bring positive change to our country, to create new opportunities, that’s exactly why I’m here.”

The Maritime Academy, founded in 1891, has historically focused on Coast Guard-approved training for professional mariners. Anticipating the needs of the burgeoning offshore wind industry in the United States, it expanded its offshore wind support courses in 2019.

More than 200 people have completed basic safety training at the academy’s Maritime Center for Responsible Energy, in conjunction 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 marine center. The safety course, offered twice a month, is booked until the end of the year.

In the courses, there’s a sense of excitement to work overseas, take on a new challenge and help kick-start the industry, Burns said. He expects to see more schools and businesses offering the training to meet growing demand.

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

In neighboring Rhode Island, Danish wind developer Orsted and utility Eversource are teaming up with the state, the Community College of Rhode Island 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 supply electricity to Connecticut and Rhode Island.

America’s first offshore wind farm opened off Block Island, Rhode Island in late 2016. But with five turbines, it’s not commercial scale.

Cullen of Vineyard Wind said the role of training is to qualify people to work for a variety of developers and grow the workforce. Vineyard Wind also works with a Martha’s Vineyard program to prepare local residents for technician jobs.

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

Spofford said he was delighted the offshore wind industry was creating jobs, especially for seafarers in the northeast. There were few workboat jobs in the area after he graduated and licensed in 2009 from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. This led him to the Gulf of Mexico, where he worked in the oil and gas industry.

“Practically since I got out of school, offshore wind has always been discussed, but nothing has really happened on a large scale,” he said.

Then, Spofford said, the “stars aligned.” He is now helping to assess the vessel needs of the Vineyard Wind project, assist with procurement and contracting for the vessels, and will manage them. He completed the maritime academy course in August.

“It’s kind of like we’re part of this startup in some way,” he said. “We face many challenges. It’s kind of fun to think about it and solve it and come up with a product and something that’s going to work, a solution.

Follow Jennifer McDermott on Twitter: @JenMcDermottAP

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