Offshore wind offers advantages of greater capacity than solar energy, more stability than onshore wind power, and more importantly, decreases the need for fossil fuels and associated emissions of pollution and carbon dioxide. Countries such as China, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark are leading global offshore wind installation and deploying record-setting annual capacity of more than 50,000 MW.
Despite the recent positive momentum of state and federal approval of offshore wind projects, the U.S. offshore energy industry — and our future of sustainable energy — now face risks of major delays.
To become a global leader in offshore wind energy and ensure that domestic industry is prepared for the transition, the U.S. must seize the opportunity to address three major areas: investing in employment and training, bolstering transmission infrastructure, and developing a comprehensive set of American standards and guidelines.
The offshore wind lifecycle consists of five phases: pre-development, planning, installation, operation and maintenance, and decommission. From billions of dollars invested into North Atlantic ports to the creation of new jobs, each phase of the offshore wind lifecycle reveals the potential for tremendous economic benefits. Over the next decade, the domestic offshore wind industry will undergo a full transition into the operation and maintenance phase, naturally causing surging demand for a specialized workforce.
There’s one problem: an alarming shortage of adequately trained engineers. Nearly 50% of the energy and power industry is eligible to retire during this decade.
Higher education institutions will play a critical role training the next generation of engineers as well as upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce. From high school to graduate school, U.S. academic curriculums will need to be updated to prepare students to work on new, clean, and more efficient energy resources and technologies. For example, AC-DC conversion and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission training is a uniquely important concept in offshore wind, but it’s often omitted in classrooms. Offshore wind turbines generate alternating current (AC), sending it to a substation that will convert AC to direct current (DC), which will be transmitted onshore and back to AC to millions of homes.
Institutions such as New Jersey Institute of Technology recognize the importance of higher education and industry partnerships, and it’s one of few schools in the country to offer specialized programs, certificates, and bootcamp training to provide intensive knowledge building for students and professionals in energy and power systems. Given the technological gap between the existing American power infrastructure and the infrastructure needed for efficient wind transmission and integration, it is necessary to ensure the domestic workforce can take advantage of job opportunities and be familiar with the specific requirements of the national grid and the new transmission technology.
Besides, workforce training programs geared towards higher education audience are significant forces in the current vocational education landscape. The convergence of a declining demographic trend, surging student loan burdens due to escalating interest rates, and a sense of uncertainty of post-graduation earning potential has created a greater challenge for admission offices for even some flagship state institutions. Workforce training initiatives focused on the burgeoning offshore wind industry present a promising avenue for attracting young talent to universities.
Another concern is the capacity of America’s existing post-onshore transmission infrastructure, which hasn’t had a major upgrade for several decades. The combination of increasingly frequent heat waves due to climate change and the addition of new energy sources will drive up overall demand for energy, leading to overloaded transmission lines and more large-scale outages for millions of people.
Moving forward with the current transmission infrastructure is not a viable option. To solve the congestion problem of the existing transmission infrastructure, we will need to take a multipronged approach of improving grid-scale storage, advanced weather forecasting, HVDC transmission, microgrids, grid interconnection, and electrification.
Domestic standards are also necessary to close the manufacturing gap between domestic industry and global competitors. Europe has already developed and is continuing to refine wind power standards. For example, International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) rules, such as IEC 61803, specify the requirements for HVDC systems used for power transmission. However, differences between American and Europe electrical infrastructure, grid systems, and regulatory agencies may require efforts on developing standards in aspects that are specific to the United States power industries. These would help clarify how new HVDC systems will be incorporated with the existing infrastructure and could also boost the local HVDC technology industry, including aspects of manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and innovation.
We cannot afford to further delay offshore wind’s potential to revolutionize American’s clean energy landscape. The next ten years will be a critical test for our domestic industry. To achieve success, we must accelerate investments into developing a specialized workforce, strengthen our transmission infrastructure, and create guidelines for domestic manufacturers.
By Philip Pong, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
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