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Sharing the Wealth of Nature’s Offshore Winds

Block Island Offshore Wind Farm (National Renewable Energy Laboratory photo).

Below is Greg Watson’s latest piece on offshore wind power and the opportunity of diversifying wealth in its production. We are pleased to share it to you.

Best wishes,
Schumacher Center Staff

 


 

“Wealth is the technological ability to protect, nurture and support the needs of life.”
-Buckminster Fuller, “Buckminster Fuller Talks Politics” by Lightning Allan Brown. Sun Magazine. December 1982.

Sharing the Wealth of Nature’s Offshore Winds
by Greg Watson

From 1999 to 2012 I performed a variety of tasks for the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust– a quasi-state agency charged with jump-starting a renewable energy industry in the Commonwealth. I was initially hired as its first executive director. In 1998 Arthur D. Little issued its Profiles of Leading Renewable Energy Technologies for the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust. There was no mention of offshore wind turbines. Despite this, it seemed clear to me from a design science perspective that offshore wind presented Massachusetts government, business and civic leaders with an opportunity to lead the nation in creating an exciting new U.S. industry that could play a critical role in mitigating climate change.

Conceptual drawing of floating turbines by Bill Heronemus and students (1970’s).

Early in 2000 University of Massachusetts professor Jim Manwell urged me to meet with William Heronemus, retired US Navy Captain and Professor Emeritus at the University. In the late 1960s Professor Heronemus predicted an imminent energy crisis. He initiated a national energy policy discussion and promoted the development of “Grand Scale Renewables” that would ultimately replace fossil fuel and nuclear energy. His grand vision included a “34-[wind] turbine array Wind Ship moored at sea in a Flotilla, converting seawater to hydrogen fuel.” He was confident that the winds flowing over U.S. east coast waters could sustainably meet the region’s electricity needs once the engineering systems capable of economically harvesting and distributing their power were developed.

When independent power producer Jim Gordon met with staff at the Renewable Energy Trust to inform of his intention to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod in 2001, Massachusetts seemed poised to lead the nation’s clean energy revolution. However, Gordon’s plan to construct 170 turbines in Nantucket Sound ignited one of the most politically contentious energy siting wars in Massachusetts’ history. The Cape Wind team survived a number of serious legal challenges but ultimately could not outlast the Koch-funded opposition. It did lay the groundwork leading to a more orderly process for permitting and approving offshore wind projects in the U.S. More than that, it was the spark that jumpstarted the offshore wind energy movement in the U.S. years before it would have without the benefit of a real project in our own waters to learn from.

Cape Wind demonstration during Interior Secretary Salazar’s visit to Boston in 2010.

I was a beneficiary of Cape Wind lessons as were many others. They helped shape my offshore wind portfolio beyond Cape Wind. An ad hoc organizing team composed of outliers from the MA Renewable Energy Trust, the U.S. Department of Energy and GE Energy self-organized, excited by the potential of U.S. offshore wind development. We began mapping the policy and regulatory landscape stakeholders in an emerging U.S. offshore wind industry would need to successfully navigate. We co-designed-and-managed a process that led to the 2005 publication of A Framework for Offshore Wind Energy Development in the United States. Informed by the Cape Wind experience, the diverse perspectives of the participating engineers, marine biologists, regulators, avian experts, policy wonks, economists and environmentalists produced an early agenda-setting document that still has relevance today.

In 2016, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that requires the Commonwealth’s electric utilities to commit to purchasing a total of 1,600 megawatts from offshore wind by 2027. This is welcome news for those who have been working for nearly two decades to persuade Bay State power brokers to help remove the barriers preventing advocates from leveraging the state’s most plentiful (and untapped) energy resource (which just so happens to be renewable) to help reduce our reliance on out-of-state energy resources to power our homes and businesses while combating climate change. It is equally exciting news to a workforce willing and eager to participate in and benefit from helping build the state’s green economy.

The infrastructure needed to support the generation of thousands of megawatts of energy from modern towering turbines planted in the ocean seabed or floating on its surface is not fully in place. Massachusetts does, however, host some critical components of such an infrastructure including the $40 million Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown (offering certification tests for turbine blades) and New Bedford’s $100 million Marine Commercial Terminal (supporting the construction, assembly, and deployment of offshore wind projects). A commitment to building out the infrastructure could translate into thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars flowing throughout the local and regional economies over time. According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s 2018 Massachusetts Offshore Wind Workforce Assessment:

“Construction activity related to the deployment of 1,600 MW of OSW is estimated to create between 2,279 and 3,171 direct job years. In total, construction activities are estimated to support between 6,878 and 9,852 job-years, which includes direct, indirect (supply chain), and induced impacts.”
Who stands to actually reap the financial rewards should the nation’s fledgling offshore wind energy industry take off and approach its potential? Will the opportunities to benefit from offshore wind energy development be accessible to all? Our state and municipal elected officials are hopefully thinking about and planning for how this development can help address the egregious inequities and close the wealth gap that separates white households and those of minority communities in Boston and throughout Massachusetts. Last year the Boston Globe published a series on racism in Boston. One particularly disturbing revelation was the finding that:
“The median net worth of non-immigrant African-American households in the Boston area is just $8, the lowest in a five-city study of wealth disparities. It’s hard to ignore the dramatic contrast to the $247,500 net worth for white households in the Boston area.”

This has to be considered totally unacceptable by any standards. We know a great deal about what contributed to this deplorable landscape of inequality. A series of intentional discriminatory policies and practices including disinvestment, redlining, real estate speculation and arson for profit devastated poor communities of color and set the stage for urban renewal (slum removal), gentrification and displacement, (“Negro removal”). The many obstacles minorities had to overcome to own a home prevented many from creating wealth that could be passed on to the next generations.

These are critically important lessons from history that we should learn from especially, given the fact that considerable government resources (both state and federal) are being expended to help build a new offshore wind industry. This situation is not so different from the recent development of Boston’s newest neighborhood: Seaport.

But what happened in Seaport is not just the failure to add a richly diverse neighborhood to downtown. It is also an example of how the city’s black residents and businesses missed out on the considerable wealth created by the building boom. This is a city in which blacks are almost a quarter of the population, and their tax dollars were part of what helped jump-start the new Seaport. [According to one Boston African-American entrepreneur] “It is a brand-new neighborhood and it’s not diverse, I don’t know one person of color that has made any money from the development of the Seaport. Not one.”
Boston. Racism. Image. Reality. Boston Globe. December 13, 2017.
The 2018 Massachusetts Offshore Wind Workforce Assessment published by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (the reincarnated Renewable Energy Trust) estimates that thousands of new jobs would be created as the state works towards meeting its 1,600-megawatt goal. Their report provides details of exactly what kinds of opportunities will become available— not only jobs for people of color to apply for but contracts that minority owned business could bid on as well.
“Workers in skilled trades and those with skills that could transfer to long-term [operations and maintenance] occupations are underrepresented in the Massachusetts workforce. For instance, each project is expected to have a large demand (measured as the share of job-years) for iron and steel workers and construction welders. Massachusetts already has a low supply of workers in these occupations relative to the nation. The Block Island Wind Farm, with only 5 turbines, required a smaller workforce yet welders still had to be drawn from neighboring states to support that project.”
2018 Massachusetts Offshore Wind Workforce Assessment report by the MA Clean Energy Center.
However a persistent, nonpartisan elephant continues to occupy the room.
“Most construction projects in Massachusetts, even those with high minority-owned businesses (MBE) participation have one thing in common – the absence of or little African-American owned business participation. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Business Disparities in the DCAMM Construction and Design Market Area Study now proves what the eye-test has told many of us all along – We need to create more access and opportunities for African-American owned construction firms.”
“African-American construction firms struggle for access and opportunity in Massachusetts’ booming construction industry” by Travis Watson (unpublished paper, August 17, 2018)
Massachusetts possesses two valuable and critical resources (its wind and minority workforce) that together could spur a game-changing technological and economic revolution. Actively recruiting minority-owned businesses to play a role in launching the Massachusetts offshore wind industry would produce a real “win-wind-win.” Here’s a question to ponder: could offshore wind strive to become a community-supported industry?
“The goal of Community Supported Industry is to strengthen regional economies by replacing some Imports with goods produced by local businesses that provide living wages and employ sustainable manufacturing practices.”
The Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013 sets up a $10 million business development fund. This fund will be used to assist small businesses and minority businesses to ensure that they are ready to participate in the offshore wind supply chain.
Drawing by Brooke Courtney Watson.

In March of this year, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA) Congressman Bill Keating (D-MA) and Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced H.R. 5291— the Offshore Wind Jobs & Opportunity Act. This legislation would create a federal grants program, providing funds to educate and train the first American offshore wind workforce. It places particular emphasis on funding community colleges that serve minority populations and workers seeking to transition from other industries.

In June 2018 the Subcommittee on Natural Resources held a hearing on H.R. 5291. Witnesses at that hearing were: Mr. James Bennett, Chief Of The Office Of Renewable Energy Programs, Bureau of Ocean Management, Department of the Interior; Mr. Randall Luthi, President, National Oceans Industries Association; Mr. Roy Francis, Senior Vice President Gulf Island Fabricators, Inc.; Mr. Olaf J. Olsen, Lead Representative, Dockbuilders-Divers-Piledrivers, Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters; Mr. Stephen Pike, Chief Executive Officer, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

To date the legislation is endorsed by Utility Workers Union of America, American Wind Energy Association, and BlueGreen Alliance (including the United Steelworkers International, National Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club). Communities of color should be allies in this effort. Their support would make a powerful statement. But it will have to be earned.

“Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.”
 


 

 

Greg Watson is Director of Policy and Systems Design at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. In 1999 he became the first executive director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust. He was a founder of the U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative. In 2007 he served on President-elect Barack Obama’s Department of Energy transition team.