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Biden's offshore wind plan could create thousands of jobs, but challenges remain

Wind turbines, of the Block Island Wind Farm, tower over the water on October 14, 2016 off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island.
AFP via Getty Images
Wind turbines, of the Block Island Wind Farm, tower over the water on October 14, 2016 off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island.

The United States is trying to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in order to meet its climate goals under the Paris climate agreement. A major contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is the energy sector, which accounts for about 25% of total emissions.

The Biden administration wants to significantly reduce this figure and is pushing the development on offshore wind along America's coasts. Its goal is to have 30 gigawatts of offshore wind online by 2030 and that will require thousands of new jobs, especially in the construction sector.

It's one of the reasons why President Biden often brings up the idea of new economic opportunities when he talks about tackling climate change.

While countries in Europe and Asia have been exploring offshore wind for years, it's still a fairly nascent industry in the U.S. The first offshore wind farm in the U.S. started operations in 2016. That's 25 years after the first offshore wind turbines started turning in Europe.

Though other renewable energy sources, such as solar and onshore wind, have been around for decades in the U.S., they often lack the protection and job security provided by unions. Offshore wind wants to change this by unionizing large parts of its workforce.

This could also entice more fossil fuel workers to look for a future in clean energy. As a 2021 study has shown, the average compensation in the clean energy sectors still lags behind those in the fossil fuel industry. In California, for example, the average compensation for a clean energy worker is about $86,000. For a fossil fuel worker it's about $130,000.

"Higher unionization rates should promote gains in compensation and better working conditions," according to the study.

North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a labor organization representing more than 3 million workers across 14 unions in the U.S. and Canada, is preparing its members to compete for those upcoming opportunities.

"I think offshore wind energy is poised to support good paying union jobs, middle class wages, we're seeing a lot of positive movement for it," says Trevor Falk, who is a special assistant for energy policy at NABTU.

Industrial painter Maximo Decaba was one of four painters who worked on the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. He says the opportunity changed his life.
/ Maximo Decaba
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Maximo Decaba
Industrial painter Maximo Decaba was one of four painters who worked on the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. He says the opportunity changed his life.

Maximo Decaba, an industrial painter, experienced this first hand. He had the opportunity to work on the country's first offshore wind farm - the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island.

"With that job, I made enough money to buy my first home," says Decaba, who has been working as a painter since he was 15. "It's time we get off fossil fuels, and it's time people make an honest living with green energy."

Decaba was one of four union painters who went out to sea to provide to give the five wind turbines a fresh coat of paint. Overall, the project created more than 300 construction jobs.

"It took us two-and-a-half months to do it," he says. "Now every time I see a commercial [for the wind farm], I tell everybody that's in the room, 'I painted that. I was one of the painters there.'"

Decaba enjoyed the Block Island project so much that he's back working on another wind farm. But this time, he's only doing the onshore work.

Currently, there are only two offshore wind farms in operation in the U.S. with a combined capacity of 42 megawatts. Several other projects are at various stages of permitting and construction. Getting to 30 GW of offshore wind by the end of this decade will require a construction boom along the U.S. coastlines.

And even though there are many projects in the pipeline, the current economic conditions of rising interest rates and high inflation, as well as supply chain constraints present significant challenges that could delay the growth of America's offshore wind industry.

Offshore wind work requires a certain lifestyle. Being out at sea for weeks or months at a time is not for everyone, but Jennifer Cullen, senior manager of Labor Relations & Workforce Development for Vineyard Wind, says interest in the company's offshore wind project remains high.

Vineyard Wind has already started construction of its onshore substation. Offshore of its wind farm is expected to start later this year.
H.J. Mai / NPR
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NPR
Vineyard Wind has already started construction of its onshore substation. Offshore of its wind farm is expected to start later this year.

Workers can find opportunity on other offshore wind farms, but the lifestyle is tough, she says.

Vineyard Wind is building the country's first commercial-scale offshore wind project. The 800 MW wind farm will be located 15 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. That's enough to power more than 400,000 homes.

The project will employ 1,700 workers over 25 years, according to an analysis by the former UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center.

Vineyard Wind signed a project labor agreement (PLA) with local labor organization Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council in 2021, which will result in at least 500 union jobs.

Last year, Ørsted, signed a PLA with NABTU that covers all of its U.S. offshore wind projects. Tom Kriger, NABTU's research and education director, says these agreements are making offshore jobs more attractive than other clean energy jobs.

"Clean energy jobs are not by definition good jobs," he says, it takes commitment from companies, tradespeople, and governments to "create good jobs."

Alex Barham, an instructor with Ironworkers 5 in Maryland.
H.J. Mai / NPR
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NPR
Alex Barham, an instructor with Ironworkers 5 in Maryland.

Unions provide apprenticeship training through registered programs. The average starting salary in U.S. for apprentice who completed the program is $77,000, although it varies by industries.

Due to the higher safety risks of working on a offshore wind farm, six-figure salaries are not out of the ordinary.

Alex Barham, an instructor with labor union Ironworkers 5 in Maryland, says that all that is required to get going is a high school diploma or GED.

"They're getting on-the-job training. And then for two weeks every six months - so we have two semesters a year — they'll come to class, but they get the majority of their training, actual specifics in the field," Barham says.

This type of registered apprenticeship program takes four years to complete. The building trades unions call it the other four-year degree.

With hundreds of square miles of untapped potential along American shores, offshore wind will grow exponentially in the coming years, and both American workers and the environment will benefit from it.

This digital piece was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

H.J. Mai