US offshore wind intensifies, workers are taught safety

US offshore wind intensifies, workers are taught safety

At the 131-year-old maritime academy along Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, the people who will build the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm are learning how to stay safe while working near turbines at sea.

Some are quite easy to cope with the tasks, as they are veterans of the marine industry or construction. For others, it is completely new to use fall arrest and sea rescue equipment, climb from a boat onto a ladder to reach the turbine, and learn how to operate hundreds of feet in the air.

Offshore wind developers are hiring after years of promising to create tens of thousands of jobs that the industry could create in the United States. To start this new clean energy industry, they now need a lot of workers with the right training and skills.

“That’s a huge amount of people we’ll need at a time when we need them,” said Jennifer Cullen, senior manager of labor relations and workforce development at Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts. “We’re fighting this feeling, we’ve been talking about it for so long… is it really coming? We tell people: yes, it’s here, it’s now.

“We are building turbines next year and after that we are going to build many more wind farms,” she added.

Vineyard Wind is on track to become the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the US. The development follows the Cape Wind project, which was supposed to be closer to the Massachusetts coast but failed after years of litigation and local resistance.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy is the only place in Massachusetts that currently offers basic safety training developed by a non-profit organization founded by wind turbine manufacturers and operators – the Global Wind Organization – although training is offered in other states. Everyone who goes to an offshore wind farm must complete safety training, and most developers meet the requirements of the GWO program.

The course is attracting union workers and others willing to work on future wind farms that the Biden administration wants to dot on the US coast 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 payoff for offshore wind power trainees is a job with an average salary approaching $80,000 a year.

Before arriving at the academy, students complete approximately six hours of online coursework.

Then, dressed in waterproof suits, they practice getting off the ship in Buzzards Bay onto the boarding ramp connected to the turbine—a dangerous part of the job, especially in rough seas.

Students step off the pier into the frigid waters of the bay to learn how to safely leave a ship or turbine in case of an emergency. They inflate the life raft, climb in and straighten it out when it is capsized.

To prepare for work at height, they use a full body harness and safety gear to climb up and down the turbine ladder. They practice rappelling off a 20-foot (6.1-meter) platform in case of an emergency evacuation. And they save a fellow student who pretends to be injured.

The day is devoted to the basics of first aid and resuscitation, and a small fire is extinguished with fire extinguishers.

Many interns will go to work at Vineyard Wind, 15 miles (24 km) off the coast of Massachusetts. The 62-turbine project is expected to produce 800 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power more than 400,000 homes starting in late 2023. Onshore work began at the end of last year.

Daniel Szymkowiak, 36, is an engineer who used to work offshore in the oil and gas industry. In August, he completed a maritime academy course and is now working on undersea wind farm cables for Vineyard Wind.

Szymkowiak changed careers because his work in renewable energy and wind power made him think better about the future of the world, he said.

“It’s not far off. Being the first commercial project in the States is great,” he said. “To bring positive change to our country, to open up new opportunities, that’s why I’m here.”

The Maritime Academy, founded in 1891, has historically focused on Coast Guard-approved training for professional seamen. Anticipating the needs of the nascent offshore wind industry in the US, in 2019 the company expanded its courses in support of offshore wind power.

More than 200 people have completed basic safety training at the academy’s Marine Responsible Energy Center in collaboration with RelyOn Nutec. According to Michael Burns, executive director of the maritime center, the center plans to use grant funding to expand its offshore wind courses with basic technical training enhanced by first aid and enhanced rescue operations. The safety course, offered twice a month, is booked until the end of the year.

The excitement of working offshore, tackling new challenges and helping to launch an industry can be felt in the classroom, Burns says. He expects to see more schools and companies offering training to meet the growing demand.

“We want to do everything in our power to do our part to ensure that these projects are delivered on schedule,” Burns said.

In nearby Rhode Island, Danish wind energy developer Orsted and utility company Eversource are partnering with the state, Rhode Island Community College and labor leaders to launch a basic safety education course there. Orsted and Eversource plan to build Revolution Wind, a 400-megawatt wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to provide power to Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The first offshore wind farm in the United States opened off Block Island in Rhode Island in late 2016. But with five turbines, this is not a commercial scale.

Vineyard Wind’s Cullen said the role of training is to prepare people for jobs in different developers and grow the workforce. Vineyard Wind is also working with Martha’s Vineyard program to prepare local residents for jobs as technicians.

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

Spofford said he is excited that offshore wind power is creating jobs, especially for seafarers in the northeast. After he received his degree and license from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2009, there were few workboat jobs in the region. This led him to the Gulf of Mexico where he worked in the oil and gas industry.

“Practically since I left school, offshore wind has always been discussed, but nothing really happened that was massive,” he said.

Then, according to Spofford, “the stars aligned.” Now he is helping to assess the needs of the Vineyard Wind project for vessels, assisting in the sourcing and contracting of vessels and will manage them. In August, he took a course at the Naval Academy.

“It feels like we are part of this startup in some way,” he said. “We are facing a lot of problems. It’s quite fun to think through them, decide and come up with a product and something that will work, a solution.”

About the photo: Ellen Crivella (left) and others learn how to get from a boat to an offshore wind turbine tower during a Global Wind Organization certification class at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, Massachusetts, Thursday, August. October 4, 2022. At the 131-year-old maritime academy along Buzzard Bay, the people who will build the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm are learning how to stay safe while working near turbines at sea. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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