New jobs for a new era

Homegrown wind turbine techs prepare for offshore work.

In a sign of things to come in both Vineyard Haven and off the Vineyard coast, the Mayflower Wind survey vessel Go Liberty fuels at the R.M. Packer Terminal. — Rich Saltzberg

Wind farms are poised for development in federal lease areas off Massachusetts, as the U.S. continues to pivot toward renewable energy sources. An effort is afoot to ensure Vineyarders capitalize on the labor opportunities that come with these wind farms.

Through a partnership between ACE MV and Bristol Community College, the first cohort of Vineyard-based wind technicians is in the pursuit of offshore wind technician certificates. The two-year program will prepare students with the technical expertise needed to repair and maintain the electromechanical components within the nacelles atop offshore turbines.

Meanwhile, the Tisbury Marine Terminal, a facility meant to berth special vessels that will service the coming wind farms, continues to progress. Students presently studying for their certificates are now well-positioned to be the technicians those vessels convey to the wind farms for upkeep, according to Richard Andre, president of the renewable energy nonprofit Vineyard Power, Vineyard Wind’s partner on Martha’s Vineyard. Andre said the marine terminal and the certificate program will foster well-paid, year-round jobs for about 40 Islanders. And while the coming marine terminal is meant to service all coming wind farms, Andre said it will undoubtedly first provide service for Vineyard Wind 1, an 800-megawatt, 84-turbine project slated for operation in 2023. 

“The two fastest growing careers in the United States are solar technicians and wind farm technicians,” Andre said. “We’re literally bringing one of the fastest growing industries right to Martha’s Vineyard.”

Holly Bellabuono, executive director of ACE MV, said the certificate program, which began in January, was made possible through grants from Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and Vineyard Wind. “This is our first big leap into renewable energy,” she said. “It’s been a great success so far.” 

She described Bristol Community College’s programs as firsts in the country, but previously only accessible at their New Bedford Campus. “This is the first time they have taken this education elsewhere,” she said.

The certificate program is taught at the high school by high school teachers who’ve been given adjunct professor status by the college. “The idea is that all the classes, as much as possible, will be taught here on-Island, to reduce any financial burden and travel burden for students,” she said. 

A mathematics class and an electrical machinery class are the first ones on offer. Due to the pandemic, the classes are virtual. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School science instructor Dana Munn teaches the electrical machinery, the inaugural certificate class. Munn described the coursework as heavy on theory and math. 

“The classes are fairly technical and very academic,” Munn said. “There’s a lot of problem solving. It’s really almost a hybrid between like an electrical engineering course and kind of an electrical technician course. And it’s very heavy on theory. It’s not really a hands-on class, it’s a lot of theoretical design and problem solving — gives exposure to a lot of applications like motors and generators — all the electrical theory. All the chapters are very math-based, and there’s a lot of equation manipulation.”

Munn went on to say, “The approach is to give them a really good background,” and a better understanding of “how machinery works.” 

The skills learned through certificate courses will be enhanced by the manufacturer of a wind farm’s turbines, according to Jennifer Cullen, manager of workforce and supply chain development for Vineyard Wind. Vineyard Wind, for example, is in the process of selecting a turbine maker, a choice that will have bearing on service maintenance and operations crew configuration, skill sets, and the overall job descriptions. 

“We initially had a preferred supplier agreement with MHI Vestas,” she said. “So we have a good understanding of what the composition of the crews [would] look like from the information we’ve gotten from them; however, when the project hit a delay, the contracts went back to the drawing board. And so we’re now in the process of identifying who our turbine supplier will be for the project, and that will dictate exactly what the crew composition and what those job descriptions will be.”

Along with the turbine crews, Andre said, he anticipates vessel crews and shoreside staff will also work out of the marine terminal. Though planning is still fluid, Andre said he anticipated crews would work shifts of two weeks on, two weeks off. While on a shift, crews would remain out at sea aboard their vessel. “Students have to have a head for heights, and legs for the sea,” he said.

Certificate candidate Melanie Englert, a Tisbury resident, expressed no qualms at being hundreds of feet in the air. “I’m not afraid of heights,” she said. “I don’t think you could do it if you were afraid of heights. I mean, they’re pretty tall.”

Heights also play a factor in how crews will sometimes be deployed to the turbines. 

“There will be some helicopter operation,” Andre said. “The scale of that is to be determined as the project gets developed. It’s safe to say the center of this is going to be the Tisbury Marine Terminal in Vineyard Haven, but there’s going to be a helicopter at the airport.”

Certificate candidate Pat Cassidy, an Oak Bluffs resident, saw no trouble with two-week tours at sea. “I’m coming from a maritime background,” he said. “I’ve been using boats, working on boats for most of my life.”

On the Vineyard for 25 years, Cassidy said he’s drawn to troubleshooting machines. 

“It is a technical job,” he said. “That’s what I’m drawn to. I’m a carpenter and a contractor, and so I’m always tinkering on machinery and whatnot.”

The industry has appeal. “It’s an emerging industry that’s going to have a base right here in Vineyard Haven,” Cassidy said. “So it’s a great opportunity for year-round work on the Vineyard.”

Certificate candidate Gabe Bellabuono, a West Tisbury resident who enjoys crafting metal, said he was “super-intrigued” by wind turbines. 

Certificate candidate Jack Angelbeck said he’s been in the culinary field for years, and is ready for a change. “I’m ready to do something different, and it seemed very accessible, like a very low-risk thing to do right now, to get in on this program,” he said. “This is ground floor on something that hasn’t been done in this country before. I think it’s huge. It’s good for my family because it’s a high-paying job.”

Andre said the estimated average pay works out to about $80,000 per year. “That’s double what I make right now, generally,” Angelbeck said. 

Angelbeck, Bellebuono, Cassidy, and Englert all noted it was a big plus that the certificate would help facilitate a job that was on-Island. “It’s very important,” Englert said. “I live here. My friends are here.” 

“So many of the jobs on this Island, everyone knows, are seasonal,” Angelbeck said. “It’s just a summer Island. Trying to find employment in the off-season is really tough for a lot of people, in whatever field you’re in. And this is a year-round job that’s going to help a lot of people on this Island.” 

Holly Bellabuono said 18 students are enrolled in the certificate program, though the pandemic reduced that to 14. She said she expects the number to return to 18 shortly. Of those, the oldest student is 50 years old, and the youngest, a dual-enrolled high school senior who is receiving college credit, is 18 years old. 

“So it’s quite a range, but a good half of those are between 18 and 26,” she said.

That 18-year-old is Hunter Athearn from West Tisbury, who said he’s “learned a lot” from Munn.

“I really like him as a teacher,” he said. Munn shows students “equations put into real work,” he said.

Athearn said he “grew up on boats,” so he is comfortable on them. Comfortability with heights took a bit of work, though. As an eighth grader, he said, he wound up “freaking out” on a ropes course catwalk, but since spending time on the edge of a ravine in Spain, has conquered his fear of heights. 

Athearn said there’s “a lot of opportunity” for wind turbine workers, and the certificate training will make him marketable on-Island, and to a global industry, should he choose to pull up stakes. 

“I think it’s important to mention the funding around this, because it’s been a big community effort,” Holly Bellabuono said, “and will continue to be so … it was very important for ACE and Vineyard Power and our community partners to reduce tuition, if possible, for our students, which we did. We cut tuition by half, based on what Bristol charges, to give students a discount this semester and hopefully this entire program.”

She pointed out Bristol Community College charges $655 for a three-credit course and $861 for a four-credit course. To keep those figures halved for Vineyarders, she said ACE is seeking donations. Anyone interested can contact her at ACE MV, she said. “It’s definitely a community investment,” she said. 

Andre stressed no such workforce development would be possible without the efforts of Ralph Packer, who has been working with Vineyard Power for a decade to transform a portion of shorefront property in Vineyard Haven into the marine terminal that will service the wind farms. 

“He’s really doing this as a visionary for the Island,” Andre said. Andre summoned a Greek proverb to describe the efforts that Packer, an octogenarian, has put forth. 

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never sit in,” he said.