A wind turbine plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

Four community colleges in Southwest Virginia have agreed to collaborate on training workers for what regional economic development leaders hope will be a growing industry centered around manufacturing for the offshore wind industry.

The memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday by Mountain Empire, Southwest Virginia, Virginia Highlands and Wytheville community colleges is part of the ongoing Project Veer, an initiative that since December has been looking at whether – and how – Southwest Virginia can capitalize on the expanding demand for components for offshore wind installations.

“This is our way to be competitive and demonstrate we’re serious about this supply chain opportunity,” said Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies and project lead for InvestSWVA, which launched Project Veer.

Estimates predict that U.S. capital expenditures on offshore wind infrastructure will reach $100 billion in less than a decade, and workforce readiness will be a key factor in the region’s ability to seize a part of that business, said Delia Warren with Xodus, the energy consulting firm that has been conducting a regional analysis as part of the project. Xodus released its final report on Wednesday.

And with a proposal on the table now for a 2.6-gigawatt wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach – and two other East Coast wind installations already under construction – this is the time to identify the region’s available workforce and figure out what kind of training is needed, she said.

The agreement signed this week says that the four schools will work together to create programs to train workers for wind energy supply chain manufacturing jobs, and will work with wind energy companies to design courses and workforce programs based on industry needs.

“The decision to enter the wind energy sector signifies fresh thinking and a new chapter for the people of our region,” Tommy Wright, president of Southwest Virginia Community College in Tazewell, said in a statement. “A new industry – with new courses we design with manufacturers and industry experts – is a big start for those looking to polish their existing talents or develop entirely different skills.”

The need for components for offshore wind farms is expected to grow dramatically in coming years as the U.S. expands its offshore wind capacity. The Biden administration last year announced a federal goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Virginia, meanwhile, has set a target of 5.2 gigawatts by 2034, and the state’s 2020 Clean Economy Act requires that all electricity consumed in Virginia must be generated from renewable sources by 2050.

Dominion Energy’s plans for a 2.6-gigawatt wind farm off the coast of Virginia is part of the utility’s push toward renewables. The wind farm, which would have about 180 turbines and cost an estimated $9.8 billion, would be the largest in the U.S. 

The project, which still needs approval from the State Corporation Commission, has drawn criticism from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, which last week said in a filing with the regulatory agency that the wind farm isn’t needed, and that Dominion has overstated the project’s economic benefits, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The commission will hold hearings on the project later this spring. (Dominion is a major donor to Cardinal News.)

If the Dominion project does go forward, the need for skilled manufacturing workers would ramp up in 2023, according to an Xodus analysis. With most skilled trades requiring about two years of training, “now is the time for this category of workforce to be identified and adequately trained, so that when the maximum demand occurs, they’re ready and able to get to work,” Warren said. 

While some turbine components, like blades, must be manufactured as close as possible to the shore because they’re too large to be moved long distances, secondary components could be built inland. 

The backers of Project Veer believe Southwest Virginia is well-suited to that kind of manufacturing, thanks to its history of producing components for mining and farming. The region has other advantages as well, the analysis has found, including lower labor costs and electric rates than regions with which it might be competing for the work.

An earlier phase of the Project Veer analysis found that nearly 200 companies in GO Virginia’s Region 1 – encompassing 13 counties and three cities – have the potential to be part of the offshore wind manufacturing supply chain, in roles including building parts for substations and for rotors and towers. 

The region also faces challenges, however, including the lack of an obvious hub of this type of manufacturing in the region – the kind of concentration of companies that can make an area attractive to others in the same sector.

That could be addressed either by recruiting to the region a manufacturer that’s already a major supplier in the offshore wind industry, Warren said, or by helping an existing local manufacturer become a significant player in the industry.

Another challenge is messaging: getting the word out about the opportunities in the region, both to suppliers outside the area and to manufacturers and employees – and future employees – who are already here.

“Even among companies that are in advanced manufacturing, one of the major impediments that we identified is awareness of the opportunity,” Warren said.

A survey of employers across the region found that while 71.4% were interested in the potential presented by offshore wind, 57.1% were uncertain about the economic opportunities, she said.

The messaging also needs to happen at community colleges, high schools, even middle schools, she said.

“There is not one commercial-scale project built yet, and there’s going to be construction going on for the next 20, 30 years,” Warren said. “So getting the message out now to the youth, signaling that this is an opportunity, will make sure that when we get to that critical mass point when thousands of turbines are being installed every year, that there is a workforce available for that.”

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org or 540-819-4969.