By Andrew Gohn
While efforts to protect public health remain paramount right now, it is also critical that we look ahead and plan how we are going to emerge from this pandemic and rebuild our economy. Sadly, we’re unlikely to see a quick return to the record employment we enjoyed before the coronavirus sent us into an unprecedented economic shutdown.
Virginia, with its federal government jobs in the north and its military work in the tidewater region, is better suited than most states to make a recovery, but it will still take a lot to turn things back around.
We need a difference-maker. Something that involves a commitment from both government and the private sector to a long-term economic program, building from scratch an industry that will pay dividends for decades to come. Believe it or not, the opportunity is right in front of us.
Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act into law, which requires that 30 percent or more of Virginia’s electricity comes from clean energy by 2030. Requirements ramp upward after that until, by the year 2050, all Virginia electricity will be clean.
While the act is notable for its environmental responsibility, this transition to clean energy will also provide an economic engine for the commonwealth. Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the state’s two largest utilities, will retire nearly all of their coal and oil burning electric generating plants by 2024. The companies will now invest in cleaner energy such as the proposed 2.6 GW Dominion wind project off the Virginia coast set for 2024. As a key element to bringing clean power to Virginia, the act targets the approval of new offshore wind projects up to 5.2 GW in capacity through the end of 2034.
The potential benefits from this are laid out in the American Wind Energy Association’s recent report, “U.S. Offshore Wind Economic Impact Assessment”. The report details how bringing the country’s offshore wind project pipeline to fruition will create economy-wide benefits in the form of jobs, a new American supply chain, and revitalized port and coastal communities. In addition to Virginia, states up and down the East Coast have made substantial offshore wind commitments as they look to supply many of the country’s largest population centers with competitively priced, reliable, clean energy. These pledges now total nearly 26,000 megawatts (MW), enough to power millions of American homes and help keep utility costs stable.
Meeting these targets will require constructing thousands of offshore wind turbines, and that means well-paying jobs for dozens of occupations, including welders, wind technicians, electricians, longshoremen, vessel operators and many more positions. In fact, 74 different occupations are needed to build and maintain an offshore wind farm, according to the Workforce Development Institute. AWEA’s new report finds that building 30,000 MW of offshore wind could support over 83,000 jobs by 2030. It would also represent $57 billion of investment in the U.S. economy and deliver $25 billion of annual economic activity by 2030. This will come from both project development and construction — such as the proposed $200 million Siemens Gamesa blade manufacturing plant in Hampton Roads — and project operation and maintenance.
Many of these jobs will be in the supply chain, and this is a place where it’s instructive to look at land-based wind. As recently as 2007, only 100 U.S. factories built onshore wind components. Today, over 500 wind manufacturing facilities now operate across 42 states. As steel goes in the water and American offshore wind farms begin to come online, we’ll need facilities and workers here in Virginia to build the industry. That positions wind power as one of the few sectors creating new American manufacturing jobs.
The community investments are real too. So far, companies have announced investments of $307 million in port-related infrastructure, $650 million in transmission infrastructure, and $342 million in U.S. manufacturing facilities and supply chain development.
This is just the beginning. We still have work to do to fully take advantage of the one offered by offshore wind. It’s crucial that we have a government partner to establish transparency and consistency in the regulatory process, continue processing additional plans submitted by offshore wind developers, and finalize additional wind energy areas and subsequent lease areas that can be auctioned. At a time of unparalleled economic uncertainty, offshore wind’s benefits are too high to risk missing out on, and it may be a long time before we get another opportunity this big.
Andrew Gohn is the director of eastern state affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. Follow AWEA at @AWEA.