Work is carried out on the steel support structure for an offshore wind turbine at Offshore Structures Britain, a factory in Billingham, United Kingdom, in February 2017. (Getty/Ian Forsyth/Stringer)
On April 26, 2017, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D)—then in the midst of his run for office—issued an unprecedented campaign promise: As part of a strategy for the state to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2050, he would target construction of 3500 megawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2030—enough to power as much as 1.5 million New Jersey homes.1 Soon after his inauguration, on January 31, 2018, Gov. Murphy signed an executive order directing the state’s relevant agencies to begin formulating the finance, planning, and regulatory processes required to realize his expansive vision.2 On February 28, the state’s Board of Public Utilities took a first step toward implementation of this directive, forming an interagency offshore wind task force and initiating development of a solicitation for the first 1.1 gigawatts, or 1100 megawatts, of offshore wind capacity.3
As of 2017, 29 states, three U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have formally adopted laws and regulations establishing minimum clean energy supply standards for their electric power sectors.4 Their reasons include fostering in-state generation, reducing pollution, and contributing to collective action on climate change. These renewable portfolio standards also help diversify states’ energy supplies, reducing ratepayer exposure to the price volatility exhibited by fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.5 For many coastal and Great Lakes states, offshore wind can and will play a significant role in achieving these targets, and their state economies and workers stand to benefit.
The rise of American offshore wind power
Past analyses have shown that offshore wind could provide more than 100 percent of the electricity that’s currently generated by fossil fuel burning in 11 of 14 East Coast states.6 Because of this abundance, and the proximity of the resource to major urban demand centers, the legislatures and governors of several coastal states are amending their renewable portfolio standards to require utilities to procure electricity generated from offshore wind.7
Gov. Murphy’s commitment adds New Jersey to a growing Atlantic Coast bloc, within which state lawmakers are codifying rising ambitions on clean energy and job creation through the aggressive pursuit of offshore wind development. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), New York state promulgated regulations requiring 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind energy supply by 2030.8 The Massachusetts legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) established a state law requiring 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind energy supply for the state by 2027.9 In 2017, Maryland utilities regulators approved renewable energy subsidies sufficient to greenlight a cumulative 368 megawatts of offshore wind generation capacity by two different developers.10 And in Rhode Island, home to America’s first offshore wind farm11, lawmakers mandated that state utilities procure 160 megawatts of offshore wind energy capacity through long-term power purchase agreements.12
What’s in it for workers?
While the environmental and energy security benefits of these policies tend to garner significant attention, America’s first steps in offshore wind development reveal that workers in a broad range of often unionized trades—as well as the families and communities they support—also stand to be major beneficiaries of this new industry. Today’s offshore wind turbines feature steel towers that are hundreds of feet tall and blades that individually exceed the wing span of 747 airliners, and require extremely high-precision fabrication and assembly. Constructing an ocean wind farm is therefore labor-intensive and requires highly skilled workers across logistics, construction, and maritime industry trades.
But how truly significant is the opportunity for these blue-collar workers? Is offshore wind more of an eco-whimsy than an economic windfall? Two major factors support the energy source as the real deal: First, the burgeoning demand for offshore wind in the United States is backed by state laws; and second, Europe’s offshore wind boom provides hard numbers on the resulting economic impacts.
The state-level offshore wind requirements in place along the eastern seaboard totaled 4.5 gigawatts before Gov. Murphy’s 3.5-gigawatt commitment nearly doubled the sum in late January. While New Jersey’s state agencies have heavy lifting ahead to devise the necessary financing and permitting systems, the Murphy administration has strong tailwinds from a friendly legislature; an existing state law that authorizes special renewable energy credits for offshore wind; broad public support for action on climate change;13 and an urgent need to diversify the state’s energy supply.14
In other words, New Jersey’s electoral shift adds significant momentum to a burgeoning U.S. offshore wind industry that will have major implications for the coastal state labor force. The 8 gigawatts of capacity mandated or committed to by the offshore wind bloc is equivalent to that of eight average U.S. nuclear power plants.15 As the offshore projects slated to fulfill these mandates begin development, they can be expected to generate tens of thousands of jobs. In 2014, European Union countries achieved the installation of 7.5 gigawatts of total generation capacity.16 The manufacture, installation, and maintenance of offshore wind facilities supported approximately 75,000 full-time-equivalent workers across the continent that year.17
Additional concrete evidence of offshore wind’s benefits for coastal-state workers comes from pioneering development in Rhode Island, where it’s already creating diverse and high-paying jobs.
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