This is a transformational moment for the U.S. national energy economy. Investments in renewable sectors have surpassed those for oil and natural gas, and the Northeast U.S. is leading the charge with historic state commitments to one of the most promising of the new clean industries: offshore wind.
Growing the U.S. offshore wind industry requires a delicate balancing act. State competitors such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts recognize the significance of the opportunity for their economies, and in turn, are requiring developers to make "local spends" — meaning hire local consultants and buy materials and products from U.S.-based or state-specific vendors.
But, despite the historic offshore wind projects underway across the east coast, the U.S. is still fundamentally relying on the expertise of Scandinavian developers that got a head start in their countries more than a decade ago. Those developers have cultivated strong relationships with suppliers, consultants and manufacturers that have led to successful projects abroad, and it is natural that developers may want to bring trusted relationships with them to a new geography.
The crucial question at this juncture is: How does the U.S. thread the needle of working in collaboration with international industry leaders who bring years of proven experience while simultaneously committing to a robust home-grown offshore wind supply chain?
It’s not a mutually exclusive proposition. As we make inroads in developing this industry, we must simultaneously work collaboratively with international firms to help us lay the groundwork for a thriving offshore ecosystem and commit to building a local talent pool and material pipeline so this eventually can be an American-made and driven industry. We can learn from our peers, adopting the best practices developed from experience, and invest in the U.S.-based ecosystem and supply chain.
How does the U.S. thread the needle of working in collaboration with international industry leaders who bring years of proven experience while simultaneously committing to a robust home-grown offshore wind supply chain?
Leading international firms have secured many of the largest offshore wind contracts in U.S. history — including the Norwegian-based firm Equinor earlier this year in New York — and they are playing a crucial role in the growth of the industry here.
For example, as part of its contract with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to deliver 3.3 gigawatts of clean power for millions of homes across the state, Equinor is making huge investments in New York’s port infrastructure at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and Port of Albany. These will convert both locations into world-class staging and manufacturing facilities that will support New York’s future offshore wind projects and long-term climate resilience goals.
At this delicate moment for the industry, we need to think big picture and long-term. We must carefully consider the consequences of additional local spend restrictions on companies that are already setting our energy economy up for success by investing in 21st-century port infrastructure that U.S. suppliers will benefit from for future offshore wind projects. And we must be wary of a single-minded and potentially myopic focus on "buying American" that may limit, rather than secure, opportunities for developing U.S. capabilities in the sector moving forward, not to mention our resilience to climate change, which is the ultimate goal here.
Of course, as we advance large offshore wind projects along the East Coast, it is critical that we prepare our cities and regional economies to participate in the growth of a new industry: How do people access the jobs and opportunities that are projected?
That means establishing a robust workforce development pipeline in partnership with educational and nonprofit partners and ensuring that offshore wind developers or entities of any stripe — public or private, U.S. or international — engage with communities to break down barriers for entry to the wide range of job opportunities that are available for local residents.
For example, in New Jersey, Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind, a joint venture between Shell and EDF Renewables, has implemented a workforce model others can emulate as we ramp up offshore wind in the region; the firm has made commitments to local MWBE procurement a vital part of their strategy.
We should also streamline our transition to offshore wind by establishing government-sponsored learning exchanges for businesses that want to work in offshore wind. Tours of Scandinavian facilities, for example, and learning exchange programs abroad can help our local suppliers develop the understanding they need to thrive in a new economy.
Now is the time for the U.S. to commit fully to the promise of offshore wind and become a global leader in a key growth market of the early 20th century. We have the benefit of forward-thinking international peers to help us get there, and we should not miss this opportunity at the dawn of a new industry to supercharge the development of a U.S. supply chain.
Editor's note: Karp's urban planning firm counts the New York State Research and Energy Development Authority, MassDevelopment, Equinor and Atlantic Shores as clients.