Lawmakers Tout Rules to Protect Whales, Improve Job Numbers for Offshore Wind Development

Construction of the bases of new windmills for the Thornton Bank offshore wind farm, in Oostende, Belgium (credit: © Hans Hillewaert/creative commons)


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State lawmakers are touting a new study by Tufts researchers which claims that using concrete foundations for offshore wind turbines would protect sea life and 30 times the number of local jobs, at little additional cost.

It’s basically the wild west off the coast of New England, say the coalition of labor- and environmentally-focused lawmakers – including State Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven and State Rep. Travis Simms, D-Norwalk – who see opportunities to set guidelines that will benefit the state before wind development heats up after 2030.

While aiming to steer the state in the direction of concrete foundations, the lawmakers have proposed three bills meant to strengthen environmental protections and job requirements. The main bill would set a maximum construction noise level for offshore wind projects selected in state procurements, and would require the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to consider local job creation and environmental impacts when selecting offshore wind bids.

Michel said the lawmakers want to change DEEP’s priorities for selecting offshore wind contracts from mainly cost, to putting more emphasis on local jobs and to limit environmental impacts. They also want to mandate limits for construction noise to protect marine life. 

“We’re just trying to stand up for ourselves, and we’re trying to ensure that we’re creating jobs here and that we’re not destroying the marine environment,” Michel said.

According to the Tufts report, concrete foundations would cost consumers about $3 per megawatt hour in contracts for offshore wind – a 3 percent increase to the $99.50/MWh price Connecticut utilities will pay for 200 megawatts of Eversource and Ørsted’s Revolution Wind project.

“The marginal cost of creating US jobs is extremely low, and it’s a matter of the decisions that our legislators and decision-makers make,” Eric Hines, director of the offshore wind graduate program at Tufts and one of the authors of the report said.

Michel said the proposals have faced some resistance from lawmakers, which Michel attributed to scare tactics by offshore wind developers, who feared the legislation would dissuade participation in the state’s attempts to encourage wind energy.

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, co-chair of the Energy & Technology committee, said the bill will receive a public hearing – though he said he’s not sure it’s the legislature’s role to “put their finger on the scale” in directing which approach to installing offshore wind is the right one.

“If there are overriding environmental concerns that make one technology more or less environmentally appropriate, we should look at that,” Needleman said. “I just don’t necessarily believe that, within the procurement authority, [the legislature] should be the ones making that call.”

Needleman said staff at DEEP and the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management are better equipped to set specific requirements for offshore wind than part-time legislators – who are more suited to set broad policy goals without getting too far into the weeds.

The offshore wind partnership of Eversource and Ørsted said they monitor legislation to answer questions and address concerns, but did not offer an opinion on the proposed bill. Avangrid, the other company to contract with Connecticut to offshore wind, declined to comment.

Labor sees promise in concrete foundations

Chris Bachant, business representative for Connecticut Carpenters Local 326 told CT Examiner that if Connecticut simply continues down the path it’s on, the state will be supporting a European workforce and supply chain, without reaping the benefits of a local workforce. 

“They’re banking on the fact that nobody has the courage to stand up and mandate that local people are working on these projects,” Bachant said. “It has to be U.S. labor jobs, it has to be a U.S. supply chain. We’ve been talking about trying to rebuild our country, and instead we’re helping to rebuild the European continent. It makes no sense to me.”

Eversource and Ørsted, the joint developers of Revolution Wind and several other planned wind farms, have repeatedly touted sky-high job numbers for their project – claiming the 704 MW offshore wind farm would directly create 1,200 construction jobs for workers in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

When announcing the partnership between Gateway Terminal, Eversource and  Ørsted in 2020, a news release from Gov. Ned Lamont said about 400 jobs would be created at State Pier between the South Fork, Sunrise and Revolution Wind projects planned to use the pier. 

“In addition to the hundreds of well-paying, local jobs that will be created to construct our wind projects out of State Pier, we have also committed millions in local community investments as part of our Revolution Wind project and we will be partnering with local companies to develop a local offshore wind supply chain,” now-Eversource CEO Joe Nolan said at the time.

But Bachant said that when union leaders recently met with the energy companies, they mentioned just 40 jobs out of State Pier in New London – where Connecticut taxpayers have spent $178 million, and counting, to redevelop the site so that Eversource and Ørsted can use the pier to stage the installation of wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island.

A spokesman for the Eversource and Ørsted partnership said they expect 60-80 jobs at State Pier for South Fork Wind – their first and smallest project intended to use the New London pier. 

For the larger Revolution and Sunrise Wind projects, the company said it expects 80 to 120 jobs at State Pier – including tower technicians, logistics coordinators, stevedores and longshoremen, crane operators, electricians and other trades. They said the positions are expected to be filled by “Connecticut union workers and tradespeople.”

The job numbers are far below what Bachant said were expected based on the partnership’s statements in the past. South Fork Wind was announced with estimates of 340 jobs, and the website for Sunrise Wind touts 800 direct jobs from the project’s construction.

Revolution Wind’s website declares the project will create 1,200 jobs, which the Eversource and Ørsted partnership said included all jobs onshore and offshore between Connecticut and Rhode Island.

That is ten times the number of jobs they say will be available at State Pier for the project – though footnotes deep in regulatory filings clarify the 1,200 jobs is really “job years,” the number of jobs multiplied by the number of years.

In a statement after the article was published, Eversource and Ørsted said they’ve committed to  creating at least 322 direct full-time jobs for Revolution Wind, which includes work to redevelop the State Pier – a project they said brings 160-180 workers to the site each day.

“We will also begin construction this spring on our smallest project, South Fork Wind, and anticipate creating 60 to 80 positions to support those staging activities,” the two companies said in a statement. “For Sunrise Wind, we anticipate an additional 80 to 120 positions to support those staging activities. The job numbers referenced in the article for South Fork Wind and Sunrise Wind are for New York and do not include positions at State Pier.”

Tufts study recommends concrete foundations for more jobs, less disruption

About 65 percent of offshore wind projects built before 2030 are expected to use monopile foundations driven into the ocean floor, according to the U.S. Department of Energy – including the Revolution, Sunrise and South Fork Wind projects.

Those foundations have drawn concerns about the impact noise from pile driving will have on ocean life. The Tufts report said offshore wind pile driving in Europe has caused noises up to 196 decibels – enough to kill or seriously harm a human, and more than enough to disrupt the behavior of whales.

By comparison, concrete foundations are low-impact, they said. They are built onshore, floated out, then sunk to the ocean floor where they’re used to erect massive wind turbines.

Katarina Hallden, head of environmental protection at Seatower AS – a Norway-based company that makes concrete foundations for offshore wind – said the focus on the offshore wind industry has been on mitigation noise that would directly harm ocean life, but there hasn’t been a focus on levels of noise that won’t harm marine animals, but could disrupt their lives that are heavily guided by sound waves in the ocean.

Environmental assessments of these projects look at the sound impact from pile driving on the ocean floor within a ratio of a few kilometers, Hallden said. But the impact of that sound can disrupt ocean life over a much broader area, she said.

“What they should focus on is noise that goes under this injury threshold, but causes negative behavioral changes for whales, turtles, fish and other marine life – they stop feeding,” Hallden said. “The North Atlantic Right Whale, we may not see them floating up on shore, but what happens in 10 years time to an entire species?”

In Europe, where offshore wind development has been ongoing since the 1990s, the impact that noise pollution has had on marine ecosystems is a growing concern, Hallden said. Lillgrund, Sweden’s largest offshore wind farm, was built using concrete foundations in 2008 – and environmentalists and fishermen have been happy with the results, she said.

“We didn’t have the noise pollution that made indigenous fish and other marine life disappear from the area – it’s not just that they can die, they actually swim away,” Hallden said. “And while they are gone, other species come in. But at least at Lillgrund, the indigenous species, they were there before construction, they were there during construction, and they’re there after construction.”

Michel said “bubble curtains” can dampen the noise from offshore pile driving, but it’s far from limiting the noise to “safe” levels for North Atlantic Right Whales. The whales are a “keystone” species, so any injury or disruption to them has ripple effects through the entire marine ecosystem, Michel said.

“The idea that you would create the noise and then try to mitigate it is sort of an inferior engineering concept to the idea of, ‘Let’s just try to avoid the noise in the first place,’” Hines said.

The Tufts report estimated that constructing concrete foundations in Connecticut would create 60 local jobs for every 2 local jobs created by monopiles.

Eric Hines, director of the offshore wind graduate program at Tufts, said that if Connecticut wants to be a center for jobs from putting together the concrete foundations, it needs to start the process with early offshore wind projects over the next seven years so that it has an established supply chain by 2030 – when the federal government has set a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Energy projected about 10 percent of those projects would use concrete foundations – about three large projects. If Connecticut takes hold of that market and makes about 200 concrete foundations for three projects by 2030, it would position itself to capitalize on the potential explosion of the offshore wind market between then and 2050 – when Biden has set a goal of 110 GW of offshore wind, Himes said..

“If Connecticut masters the technology and they start exporting these things, they get a bigger market share,” Hines said. “And we estimated that if they ever got up to 40 percent market share, you could be employing 18,000 people building these things.”

This article was updated to include additional information from Eversource and Ørsted about the jobs promised with their offshore wind project Revolution Wind, and to correct the federal goal for offshore wind development