Building a Lower Carbon Future

Luisa Sanoli Boucher, a master’s degree candidate in the offshore wind engineering program at Tufts University, knew at age 13 what she would study. A project for a high school technical fair in her native Dominican Republic refined her career choice. “I presented a wind-powered generator,” she says. “I knew that a career in the electrical field would be in the clean energy sector.”

Boucher interned with major offshore wind developer Ocean Winds East this summer and now is working on Bluepoint Wind, its planned 1,700-MW offshore wind energy farm to be built in a New York City area ocean tract that was won in a February federal lease auction. She works directly with that project’s transmission chief on strategy to connect the power the project will eventually generate and anticipates an industry career when she graduates.

"If we want to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C we need to bring energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050," she says. "Developing a clean energy design and construction skilled workforce is imperative if we want to achieve these goals."

Michael Conner also may have had an inkling of future work in training as a pile driver through the carpenters’ union apprentice program and being certified later as a deep-sea commercial diver. Now a Maryland-based representative for the Eastern Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, he works with trades trained in those specialties, and ominoritythers, for the developing offshore wind industry. “We are recruiting workers and making sure they are prepared for the foreseeable boom,” says Conner. “It’s important that we have the right people with the right skills and the flexibility to fill this growing demand.”

 

Kiewit employee adjusts equipment at Nevada solar energy site (left); union carpenter-piledriver Michael Conner is recruiting peers for offshore wind energy work (center); Gresham Smith managers at 2.8-million-sq-ft electric vehicle battery plant it designed for a GM joint venture that is set to open in late 2023 (right, top); worker at contractor McKinstry, which has doubled its renewables and energy-efficiency team (right, bottom);
Photos: left, courtesy of Kiewit Corp.; center, courtesy of EASRCC; right top, courtesy of Gresham Smith; right, bottom courtesy of McKinstry

While political and market forces have bumped up global need for fossil fuel in the short term, projections show the energy transition is clearly underway.

Wind and solar projects provided more than 10% of worldwide power demand last year for the first time, up from under 1% a decade ago, according to sector research firm BloombergNEF. In a first-ever survey last month of global energy employment, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said clean generation employs more than 50% of total energy sector workers, about 65 million in 2019, the latest year it studied. About 10% of vehicle manufacturing jobs, 13.6 million globally, are in producing EVs, their components and batteries, said IEA.

[EV battery] plant projects are  ... moving too fast to allow inefficient design and construction.” 
David Verner, Executive Vice President, Gresham Smith 

In one possible “scenario,” IEA estimates that 14 million new clean energy jobs will be created by 2030 while another 16 million workers will shift to new roles related to it. But transition success “will depend a great deal on actions governments, industry, labor representatives and educators take to prepare the energy workforce of tomorrow,” says IEA executive director Fatih Birol, referring to those “responsible for designing, building, operating and overseeing the new energy economy.”

Notes Eric Hines, director of a pioneering offshore wind energy graduate engineering program at Tufts University in Medford, Mass: “The exciting thing is that these jobs are difficult, satisfying and deserving of high skill and equitable compensation. The question remains whether we will muster the imagination, determination, and shared sense of purpose we need to create and sustain this workforce."

European countries broadly, and Germany, the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark in particular have laid the groundwork over the last decade and a half for what the Germans call Energiewende—the transition to clean energy and the human infrastructure to support it. Germany’s now renamed federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action noted in 2013 potential for advanced degrees in renewable energy management with the German research ministry supporting more than $2 billion in competitive grants. Despite slow growth impacted by the pandemic, national support for renewables research continued at high levels, more than $6.5 billion between 2018 and 2022.

“These jobs are difficult, satisfying and deserving of high skill and compensation.” 
Eric Hines, Tufts University Offshore Wind Engineering Graduate Program

Russian actions in curtailing European energy supply since the Ukraine war now spur new fossil-fuel urgency as Germany and its neighbors push construction of about 26 floating liquefied natural gas import terminals, and consider restart of coal-fired power plants mothballed or set to be, says the Financial Times.

LNG exports from the U.S. will exceed 22 billion cu ft per day by 2027, up from 11.9 bcf/d so far in 2022, due partly to Europe's plan to halt all Russian gas imports by then, says S&P Global.

But European Union officials describe these as "stop-gap measures" that will not set back the group's intent to be climate neutral by 2050. The EU in September raised the goal for renewables to 45% of energy needs by 2030. It was 22% in 2020.

A spokeswoman for Germany's largest construction trade group says modernization of the building, infrastructure and energy sectors is an essential part of a broader ongoing economic and social transformation. Construction sector collective bargaining has in recent years restructured a number of trade specifications to include digital skills and environmental protection and sustainability, she says.

 

Expanding Market

Industry firms see expanded revenue potential in renewables. “For Kiewit, clean energy is not a niche market—it’s a significant part of our business and a big part of the future of power and energy development and delivery,” says Dave Flickinger, president of Kiewit Power Constructors. “It will continue to grow at a rapid rate with the amount of work likely outpacing the capacity of capable contractors. This year, our forecasts show that we will perform more revenue in renewable power than we will in fossil fuels — and we expect that shift to continue.”

New Jersey-based Jingoli Power last month launched a utility-scale EPC unit to expand renewable energy services. “There’s incredible growth potential in this sector,” says Karl Miller, its CEO. “We see many projects in development—true development, not just pie in the sky. We have always felt our value is best served on the most complex, cutting-edge projects with highly technical aspects.” 

The firm and Burns & McDonnell won contracts earlier this year to build substations and onshore power lines to link a planned $1.6-billion offshore wind project in New Jersey to the state onshore grid. Through its Competitive Edge program, Miller says Jingoli will provide job training and apprenticeships to community residents and boost minority and women-owned business subcontracting.

Seattle-based contractor McKinstry Co. has doubled the size of its renewables and energy-efficiency team, and expects big sector growth, says Dale Silha, vice president of energy and technology services. “We need more systems knowledge in a building—and between buildings, the built environment and the grid,” he says. “A lot of people need to coordinate who used to operate in silos.”

“Clean energy is not a niche market. It's a significant part of our business and a big part of the future of power delivery.” 
Dave Flickinger, President, Kiewit Power Constructors 

But filling the talent pool still poses a key challenge in the renewables sector, exacerbated by nagging industry worker shortages and changing work preferences pushed by the pandemic and other catalysts.

Advocacy group Interstate Renewable Energy Council says 89% of U.S. solar firms surveyed recently reported difficulties finding qualified applicants last year, with respondents citing competition, a small applicant pool and lack of training and technical skills, says Laure-Jeanne Davignon, workplace vice president. “The challenge is the lack of awareness. It’s not as easy as it should be to find training,” she says.

Kiewit's Flickinger says solar work is “fairly linear and straightforward,” but “the biggest challenge is … identifying and hiring the large number of people needed to build our jobs in a very competitive labor market.” The firm this year was selected to design and build the $1.2-billion, 690-MW Gemini solar array in Nevada, one of the largest U.S. solar projects.

Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of nonprofit clean energy advocacy research firm Rocky Mountain Institute, has predicted "a desperate shortage of electricians."

Unions profess the ability to provide trained workers. Laborers’ union programs “have been training members to work in renewable energy for many years,” says Terry O’Sullivan, union president. “Clean energy does not require reskilling as much as some added training for particular projects, proprietary systems or other emerging technology when necessary. Investment will primarily mean ramping up programs already in place.”

Noting a developer’s just-announced intent to build an estimated $3-billion combined-cycle power plant in West Virginia that would be the state’s first to operate with carbon-capture and storage technology if and when built, George Capel, government relations director of the state building trades council, says “our apprenticeship programs are equipped to take on the task.” He notes, however, that the project could be years off from construction.

But the current U.S. spike in expanding traditional energy production, particularly LNG, to supply domestic users and meet accelerated needs of foreign customers, has further squeezed the design and construction pipeline for staffing more alternative projects, says Jason Rowell, Black & Veatch vice president of new energy solutions. “In Houston, there are no engineers to be found. There is 1% to 2% unemployment in the industry there,” he says. “We have great talent and we are retraining our own teams to do hydrogen, carbon capture and other clean energy technologies, but there is such a rush of projects we are running out of professionals to retrain.”

chart

In a Sept. 28 report, Investment bank Credit Suisse estimates added economic impact from the just-enacted Inflation Reduction Act beyond the Congressional Budget Office estimates based on demand for new and expanded federal tax-incentives and private-sector multiplier investments
Chart: Credit Suisse

IRA and 'Human Capital'

Even with previous U.S. public and private efforts to accelerate and fund energy transition and workforce development, the passage of recent federal bills that earmark billions of new dollars for clean energy, manufacturing and other infrastructure has generated new benefits, and controversies, for impacted projects—particularly this summer’s fast-moving Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its $369-billion package of funding initiatives, tax incentives and new labor compensation provisions to boost benefits for sector construction and operations workers

The law "marked the most ambitious legislative action the US has ever taken on climate, which we believe will have a profound effect across industries for the next decade and beyond," says a Sept. 28 report by 25 global Credit Suisse research teams that cover energy, utilities, oil & gas, industrials, passenger and commercial transport, metals & mining, buildings and renewable/battery global supply chain

"Given the uncapped nature of tax credits and attractiveness of economics, we estimate the ultimate public climate spending enabled ... could be over $800 billion," says the report, with a "multiplier effect" that it adds could boost project investment to $1.7 trillion over ten year (see chart above).

"Already the largest fossil fuels producer, the U.S. is well positioned to become a global leader in clean energy given competitive advantage in low-cost clean electricity and hydrogen production, infrastructure, geologic storage and human capital," Credit Suisse contends. "For corporates, [the law] definitively changes the narrative from risk mitigation to opportunity capture."

In an Oct. 5 commentary on the bank's market projections,The Atlantic magazine online writer Robinson Meyer says the law would create a market where "the opportunity will be too large, the money too persuasive, [and] the problems too intriguing."

He also foresees a change in the climate change workplace from "a career choice for dorky optimists to the default career track for many ambitious college students ... There is space for everyone now."

In a much cited economic analysis of the bill, however, the Princeton University-led REPEAT Project cautions that workforce expansion is among its “difficult to model” constraints that may limit clean energy growth. Erika Symmonds, vice president of equity and workforce development for the Solar Energy Industries Association says the law’s “long runway ... allows us to do more planning and gives more trust for training.” But “there are still delays and challenges in the supply chain,” she notes.

offshore construction

offshore construction
offshore construction
offshore construction
 

Those who will work on U.S. offshore wind energy structures must take specialized, internationally recognized marine safety and survival training. One provider, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, is booked through year-end and is expanding (top); Alyssa McGlynn, a University of Maine engineering graduate student (bottom, left), assesses floating offshore wind turbine system performance; Tufts University offshore wind engineering grad student Luisa Sanoli Boucher (center) has worked on transmission strategy for a project to be built off the New York City coast; Colombia’s top young renewable energy leaders capped a three-year virtual training program with a four-week tour this summer of a Denver federal renewable energy research facility and education interactions with government and industry experts (right).
Photos:Photos: (top) AP Photo/Seth Wenig; (bottom left), courtesy of Alyssa McGlynn; (center) courtesy of Luisa Sanoli Boucher; (right) National Renewable Energy Laboratory/DOE

 

Controversies

A number of the law's initiatives are linked to—and accelerated by—provisions that give credits for projects that pay prevailing wages and require registered apprenticeships, many of which are union run.

"With the gold rush of industrial activity that the Inflation Reduction Act’s investments will initiate, prevailing wage requirements will be vital to ensuring that federal investment does not drive down wages for construction workers as contractors compete for the lowest bids," says a Sept. 14 analysis by the Center for American Progress, an independent but liberal-leaning think tank.

It added: "Renewable energy sectors already have a spotty track record on wages, and the trend could have continued if they had been further fueled with taxpayer subsidies. Pairing climate action with the creation of good jobs—and pathways into those jobs—has long been a goal of many policymakers, especially President [Joe] Biden, but the Inflation Reduction Act begins to turn that goal into reality on a scale not yet seen in the U.S. It will have a lasting impact on the quality of jobs in a growing industry."

For unions, the linked provisions could allay member fears of lower pay in clean energy than in fossil-fuel work, with building trades vocal about Biden administration cancellations of projects such as the Keystone oil pipeline. Trevor Falk, energy advisor to North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey, says some industry data shows that "having apprenticeship standards and wage floors … will attract people.” We don’t get it automatically. Our firms have to bid. It’s not a barrier but an opportunity.”

Alison Ziogas, U.S. labor relations director for Danish offshore wind farm developer giant Orsted, notes that oil and gas sector compensation is elevated  "because workers fought and unionized." She says "we recognize the [energy] transition will displace some workers, but we want to facilitate that in such a way that they have a place in renewable work where they won’t lose their economic footing."

But the Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents nonunion construction, raises concerns with the climate change law's labor provisions.

“Although not an explicit mandate to use unionized firms and labor, in practice this policy is a brazen attempt to leverage federal tax policy to boost union membership while penalizing the 87.4% of U.S. construction workers who have chosen to work for a nonunion contractor and not to join a union,” says Ben Brubeck, ABC vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs. “Rewriting the U.S. tax code to enact pro-labor policies, reward special interests and distort the free market’s workforce development and compensation practices on private construction projects is dangerous precedent.”

Meanwhile, lobbyists and sector participants await more specific guidance details from the U.S. Treasury Dept. and Internal Revenue Service since the law’s provisions are enforced under the federal tax code. Jim Young, senior director of congressional relations, HR, labor and safety at the Associated General Contractors, notes concerns on how wage determinations will be made, citing possible craft jurisdiction conflicts and compliance difficulties for small firms.

He sees potential conflicts as the U.S. Labor Dept. revises current prevailing wage rules under the Davis-Bacon Act, with updated regulations possibly released by December.  Treasury Dept. further guidance may not be issued until first quarter of 2023, Young says. "There's so much money on the line, a project wants to make sure the contractor can satisfy requirements," he notes. Guidance rules would take effect 60 days after being issued.

Treasury announced on Oct. 5 that it seeks public comment on the climate-change law's extended and new tax incentives such as energy generation and advanced manufacturing credits. These include labor and training related "enhancements" that can multiply credits that can bee earned.

Incentives make up $270 billion, or nearly three-quarters, of the law's total investment, Treasury said. Comments are due by Nov. 4.

While the announcement gave no timeframe for when guidance would be issued, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told media the department is preparing to issue guidance and rules in the coming months.  "Treasury is committed to working expeditiously to provide clarity and certainty to taxpayers and other stakeholders," said the department.

ABC is evaluating ways to help developers and contractors "understand this new policy and thoughtfully implement it on clean energy projects, if feasible." says Brubeck. "It may be that these are not worth the risk and [they] will not seek the full tax incentives."

Brubeck advocates "industry competency-based programs because they allow verification of skills while promoting a hybrid craft professional," he says.. Partnering with project owners to obtain one or more charging stations, solar arrays or wind turbines to use for task-based ... training and practice is ideal. [It] could be done as a bolt-on to a [government registered apprentice program] through an existing community college program or in-house company craft education program.”

 

Compliance Uncertainty

Kiewit's Flickinger notes that "clawbacks and penalties for not complying are severe. We’re receiving a lot of questions from our clients on how we’ll comply with several provisions that have yet to be defined by the government. Additional information is needed to make sure our clients capture all available tax benefits on their projects starting in 2023."

Michael D'Addio, a principal at Marcum LLC said "some companies may rush to begin construction on projects sooner to avoid having to satisfy the prevailing wage or apprenticeship requirements," in comments last month to BloombergTax.

IREC’s Davignon is concerned the tax credit tie-ins “could slow things down,” although the group “supports safety and higher compensation,” she says. “The pieces need to be in place and there needs to be coordination.”

Building a Lower Carbon Future

The signing of a project labor agreement last year between national building trades and major U.S. offshore wind project developer Orsted sets labor standards on its multiple east coast projects and others to come. 

The agreement followed a previously reached informal memo of understanding, something the trades also have signed with other offshore wind developers such as Virginia utility Dominion, New York developer Equinor and, on Sept. 30, Massachusetts developer Mayflower Wind, for its 1,200-MW SouthCoast project, says Brent Booker, NABTU secretary-treasurer, who negotiated the Orsted pact.

The Mayflower Wind announcement said it "includes a commitment to negotiate three separate construction-related PLAs," but there is no further detail released on other parties involved, or on scope or timing of any agreements.

Booker also declined to elaborate on key provisions of the Orsted PLA, but said it will “dispel [members’] second thoughts of the clean energy revolution.” 

He also did not confirm whether other project labor pacts have been signed, but Dominion is said to be negotiating one with Virginia building trades and the laborers’ and electrical workers’ unions, according to local media reports. “We agreed to work out project labor agreements and will have as much union work as possible,” a Dominion spokesman told ENR.

Southeastern Massachusetts’ trades also negotiated an agreement in July 2021 with developers Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners on the $2.8-billion, 800-MW Vineyard Wind, the first and largest U.S. utility scale offshore wind project to reach construction stage.

“It took 18 months to negotiate [the Orsted PLA] and dialogue to understand this is a new industry,” says Ziogas, a 17-year former union electrician who joined Orsted in 2020 to execute its labor strategy. “The building trades are excellent partners. We can work out our challenges up front.”

She says the company has "invested billions in the domestic supply chain, which touches 44 states," adding that by 2030, the offshore wind sector will need to fill 80,000 direct jobs.

Meanwhile, industry observers speculate on labor strategies in other areas of the U.S. set for offshore wind expansion, such as the Gulf of Mexico and west coast.

 

Working at Sea

A key training need for craftworkers and others in offshore wind work is Global Wind Organization safety and survival certification—the international standard for the sector. One U.S. provider is the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “We have been training people to work offshore for over 130 years and believed we could apply that knowledge to this growing industry,” says Capt. Michael Burns, executive director of its Maritime Center for Responsible Energy.

Training focuses on work at heights, basic first aid, fire awareness, safe transfer between a construction vessel and turbine site, and sea survival. The academy also plans advanced safety courses, says Burns, while states, Orsted and other developers have funded new training centers.

To date, 76 ironworkers’ union members in New England have taken the training, says David Langlais, business manager for Local 37, which covers southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Through a training fund, the district council has to date invested roughly $400,000 to cover wages and benefits during training, he adds. Vineyard Wind is looking at workers spending one month on the ocean installing giant Haliade-X turbines and other infrastructure, working 12- hour shifts, followed by a month off. That is a shift from the system used in Europe, with two weeks on and two weeks off.

Langlais says he has helped “handpick” union members believed to be a good match for what could be a tough environment. “The North Atlantic in the middle of January is not a very friendly place,” says Will Cotta, supply chain manager of offshore Massachusetts wind project Mayflower Wind. The projects also are generating construction jobs onshore such as in turbine component assembly and building power transmission substations.

Worker scales huge turbine

Worker scales huge turbine at Orsted U.K. offshore wind farm (above); Kiewit builds New York offshore wind substation at Texas oil and gas facility fabrication yard (below)
Photos: (Above) courtesy of Orsted; (Below) courtesy of Kiewit

offshore wind substation

Doug Nelson, business manager and financial secretary of electrical workers’ union Local 223 in Taunton, Mass., said the local is gearing up to launch an offshore wind training program for close to 60 members. A $300,000 grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center will pay for specialized training for members to work with high voltage cable that will funnel power from offshore wind turbines to the energy grid. “We do it on land and we do it very well,” Nelson said. “We understand the severity of it. Safety is paramount more than anything else.”

 

New Arenas

Hydrogen production facilities are another key area of clean energy development. “We’re training all trades to build them,” says Black & Veatch’s Rowell. “We need expertise in electrolysis to build and design facilities and we need it all grown to scale. It’s a huge market for us.”

Hydrogen is "a really good opportunity to transition from the oil and gas sector in the future for chemical and process engineers,” says Tom Hopkinson, CEO of Taylor Hopkinson, a London-based renewable energy recruiting consultant. “There is a huge amount of transferable skill; oil and gas companies that are doing hydrogen can retain their staff. Hopefully it will offset the potential downturn in oil and gas, but that is 10-15 years off.”

While the firm is recruiting "on a regular basis" for mid to senior construction managers in solar energy work, "where we are seeing issues is the design of grid connections. It’s a bottleneck.”

Electric vehicle battery plants are another new and potentially complex clean energy niche. The facilities “have unique design and construction requirements,” says David Verner, executive vice president of Gresham Smith, which has designed EV battery plants for General Motors in its joint venture with LG Energy Solution called Ultium Cells. These include “creating and maintaining manufacturing environments that are super low humidity,” he says, and also hazardous because of high energy density combined with flammable materials.

Manufacturers are "racing to get their EV vehicles to market," says Verner. “This means projects must be delivered using a fast-track process. To meet this need, your team must understand what this means to the development and delivery of the design. These projects are too large, too expensive and moving too fast to allow inefficient design and construction practices."

 

Next-Gen Specialists

Specialized engineering options, such as graduate offshore wind programs at Tufts in Medford, Mass., and at the University of Maine-Orono, which is focused on developing floating turbine structures for deep water, aim to produce next-gen technical and project management talent in addition to clean energy research.

The Tufts program was launched in 2019, after years of involvement by structural engineering specialist Hines, faculty member Babak Moaveni and others in optimizing turbine performance and design of onshore facilities in Massachusetts that will test and assemble components. “We wanted to share … hands-on experience with students through a more formal curriculum,” says Hines. “They also gain experience in multiple engineering disciplines, public policy, economics and management.”

Specialized clean energy programs also are being developed at other east coast universities and community colleges, with one launched in August in the Gulf of Mexico region. The Louisiana Wind Energy Hub at the University of New Orleans will build on the region's traditional energy assets and expertise to push offshore wind innovation, says Shafin Khan, vice president of its research foundation, and also will include student internships and practitioner continuing education. The university is part of a public-private coalition that just won a $50-million federal grant to develop an offshore wind-powered hydrogen energy industry cluster in south Louisiana.

 

Future industry clean energy leaders see a clear mission ahead.

Alyssa McGlynn, a second-year University of Maine mechanical engineering grad student concentrating in offshore wind energy, says her research has focused on scale model testing of synthetic floating wind turbine mooring systems to validate design performance before full scale structures are deployed at sea. “If Americans want to maintain their energy-rich lifestyles and have a habitable planet, we need clean energy,” she says.

Caleb Weinstein-Zenner, who is pursuing an electrical engineering masters at Tufts aligned with its offshore wind program aspires to specialize in power system connections. He notes technical challenges of where to “plug in” new turbine structures but also the need to “use technology to inform the public of how offshore wind will affect them.”  Bridget A. Moynihan, a second year PhD engineering student in the Tufts wind program, says she “has made all my career and education decisions through the lens of climate change. This program offered the perfect place to use structural engineering to help further the clean energy transition.”

Orsted’s Ziogas points to the developer’s effort to expand project staff diversity and reach out to environmental justice communities that face climate change risk, although some potential participants in minority communities worry that PLAs favor unions with few women and people of color.   

“We’re working with apprenticeship programs in areas that have been historically left behind,” she says. Orsted does not want “training for the sake of training, but for real opportunity for jobs. We’re building training while flying.”

Educator Hines sees the emerging energy transition as a “once-in-a-century opportunity to create equitable, high-quality careers” along with the push to limit, and prevent, further climate change impact. “Our first Industrial Revolution created significant wealth, but it also damaged our planet and exploited a lot of people,” he points out. “Hopefully we have grown wiser and can do better this time.”