Unions for green jobs: Why organized labor is getting behind offshore wind

Massive wind turbines, constructed by unionized electrical workers and ironworkers, are helping power a clean-energy future that challenges workers in fossil fuel industries.

Ben Rosen/The Christian Science Monitor
The five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm stand offshore from Rhode Island, Oct. 14, 2016. Some 300 union laborers were part of the workforce that built the first wind farm in the United States.

Ironworker Roy Coulombe was one of the union reps approached by Deepwater Wind, a renewable energy firm, with a daring proposal: Back our efforts to lobby for the country’s first offshore wind farm, and we’ll make sure you build it.

Seven years later, Mr. Coulombe and his crew were among the 300 union laborers that constructed the 1,500-ton turbines that rise 600 feet out of the ocean off the coast of Block Island, R.I.

Coulombe and dozens of other labor leaders rode a ferry out to the five turbines on Friday, just weeks before the 30-megawatt system begins generating power for 17,000 homes on the island and mainland – and ushering in the era of offshore wind in the United States.

This emerging industry puts electrical workers and ironworkers, once the manpower behind natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy, in a peculiar predicament. As the Northeast shuts down coal-fired and nuclear power plants, and global temperatures continue to rise, many of these workers believe in a clean-energy future that could benefit the environment while spurring hundreds of thousands of jobs along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards and the Great Lakes region.

But they also respect their union brothers' struggles to find work in fossil fuel industries.

“Those people are making a good living, and we gotta respect their ability to make a living,” says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, when asked by The Christian Science Monitor about the national labor union’s support of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access crude oil pipelines.

“At the same time, we understand there are environmental concerns we have to address because, at the end of the day, our people are workers, but they’re also citizens,” he adds, aboard the ferry. “We have to care about the environment.” 

The start of an industry

Mr. Nee acknowledges the offshore wind industry is a natural fit for the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, since the chapter is close to Block Island and other proposed commercial sites for offshore wind. Its location is also why Deepwater Wind first approached these unions, says Matthew Morrissey, the developer’s vice president of Massachusetts.

Early on, Deepwater Wind recognized it could eventually lower the cost of turbines by training a local workforce to develop an offshore wind supply chain near sites, says Mr. Morrissey. The five turbines that make up the Block Island Wind Farm cost about $290 million. But much of the structure was built in Europe, whose offshore industry is decades old. And the foundations that hold the turbines were built in the Gulf of Mexico by oil and gas platform manufacturers, according to Bloomberg.

About 30 New England companies were then involved in the design, fabrication, and manipulation of these parts, says Morrissey. This includes the 300 unionized electrical and ironworkers.

“These projects are highly complex and they’re technical,” says Morrissey. “We think that offshore wind will not only be an opportunity for organized labor, but an opportunity for young people who want to get into the industry to benefit from the opportunities organized labor brings to a local economy.”

But those opportunities are still in their infancy. The United States currently produces no offshore wind energy, although offshore farms are more attractive than onshore ones because the strong, steady wind that blows day and night makes coastal waters ideal for wind energy production.

But unlike in Europe, where thousands of turbines dot offshore waters, the five turbines off Block Island are, more or less, a pilot project.

Deepwater Wind and its competitors, including Denmark-based turbine giant DONG Energy, and New Jersey-based OffshoreMW, as well as states like Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York, and the Obama administration, hope this is just the start of a flourishing clean-tech industry.

Last month, the Departments of Energy and the Interior released a strategic plan to develop a national offshore wind industry. The plan calls for 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from wind power by 2030 – enough to spur 160,000 wind-related jobs.

That would require massive growth. In 2015, wind energy supplied just 4.7 percent of the all the electricity generated in the US, according to the American Wind Energy Association. 

Not so fast

But some union reps are concerned about the shift from carbon to offshore wind and other renewables.  

“While this is all good, too fast is dangerous,” John Duffy, national vice president of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, tells the Monitor while aboard the ferry on Friday.

“I think they can coexist,” says Mr. Duffy, who has 42 years’ experience surveying natural gas systems in New York City. “The transition just has to be done slowly so it can be done properly.”

Robert Collier, an analyst at the University of California–Berkeley Labor Center for Research and Education, says policies and regulations must also ensure the creation of high-skilled, good paying clean-tech jobs.  

“ 'Green jobs' is a promise that has been talked about a lot,” says Mr. Collier in a phone interview with the Monitor Friday. “But it has only been partially realized.”

In the California solar industry, for instance, there is a massive discrepancy between the job opportunities and wages for rooftop solar and utility-scale solar farms, according to researchers with the Berkeley Labor Center.

From 2010 to 2015, the utility-scale solar industry created 10,200 full-time jobs in California, paying workers $39 per hour, the Labor Center found. The rooftop solar industry, by contrast, employed 1,800 laborers, paying them between $11.50 and $20.81 per hour.  

But offshore wind presents a unique opportunity for renewable energy industries, says Collier.

“In future years and decades, offshore wind is likely to create many green jobs that are high-skilled and well paying, from construction and electrical workers to maritime, dock workers, divers, as well as bringing home the wind turbine supply chain, which is very similar to aerospace manufacturing,” he writes in an email.

There is already a precedence for this growth in Europe, which employed 75,000 workers in the offshore industry in 2014, according to the European Wind Energy Association. With the support of offshore wind, Europe’s clean-tech sector also brought in $132 billion in 2011.

But a Bloomberg New Energy Finance study in March found this sector has been on the decline ever since. It attributes this slump, in part, to the global financial crisis, but also to member-states’ policy mistakes.

“An uncoordinated patchwork of policies across Europe continues to stifle progress, not least in the UK and Spain,” Oliver Joy, spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association, told The Guardian. “We need to see more political appetite at European and national level, which means putting in place a vision for renewables into the next decade.”

The Obama administration and several Atlantic states are drafting policies that require the development of offshore wind. Whether those policies will create a seamless network of laws or a European-style patchwork remains to be seen.

And of course, transitioning to wind power will take time, says Collier.

“One has to look more broadly at the economy to see where the jobs are not just for current workers, but also for workers’ children in the decades to come. That’s what we’re talking about with offshore wind,” he says. “It’s not an answer for tomorrow. It’s an answer for the 2020s and the 2030s for us and for our children.”  

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how many homes the Block Island wind farm would power. The correct number is 17,000.]

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