Sparking an interest in wind energy

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 5:00pm

Block Island Wind Farm turbine number one looked as though it was just off the bow of the Atlantic Pioneer, but Block Island School teacher Dr. Susan Gibbons had to note to the ninth graders that the structure was still about a mile away. Those things are that huge.

The Block Island students were on a field trip initiated by a unique program created by the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce called the WinWind Program. The program is designed to introduce wind energy to Rhode Island students and create career paths for those students who may be interested working in the green energy industry. Bringing wind energy manufacturing jobs to Rhode Island has been a priority of Gov. Gina Raimondo. Although Rhode Island is the first state to boast an off-shore wind farm, the technology was not created here, nor were the wind turbines built here. The boat made its wakeless way out of the inner basin, but by the time it went around the breakwater at Ballard’s Beach there were some swells. When the Atlantic Pioneer made it up to the turbine, already more than one of the students was proclaiming that a job on the water was not a good fit for them.

As Capt. Jordan Ryan eased the Atlantic Pioneer underneath the first wind turbine, the immense size of the structures came into full view. The massive blades of the wind turbine came spinning down right above the boat, creating a whooshing sound that was more than once described as “scary” by the students on board. Michael Hanson, an operations manager for General Electric, said the elevator ride to the top of the turbine took six minutes.

Joy McGuirl-Hadley, Ed.D, is accompanying the students on field trips to provide information about the WinWind Program, which is entering its third year of the inaugural program. She said that students in North Kingstown (and other schools, including the University of Rhode Island), had already been out to the wind farm, and this trip had been specially arranged for the Block Island School. “We’re developing career pathways for off-shore wind energy,” said McGuirl-Hadley. Students going through the WinWind Program will receive special certification along with their high school diploma indicating that they have received training in, among other skill sets, safety and working in environments with extreme heights.

Another partner is Rhode Island Fast Ferry owner Charles Donadio, who donated the use of the Atlantic Pioneer, a crew transfer vessel, for the trip.

“Rhode Island Fast Ferry is covering all of costs associated to provide a unique up-close and personal tour of the Block Island Wind Farm for the students. Local Island resident and Rhode Island Fast Ferry Captain Jordan Ryan, along with GE’s Lead offshore turbine technician Michael Hanson, have also donated their time to operate the CTV and provide an informative and educational narration during the tour.  This is truly a unique experience onboard the crew transfer vessel for these local island kids,” Donadio said. “We look forward to providing more opportunities like this one to give back to the local community.”

Kristin Urbach is the Executive Director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce. “We received a RealJobs RI grant to conduct a skills gap analysis. We invited in industry leaders that overlap with offshore wind and manufacturing” — including the Wind Farm’s owner, Ørsted Energy, as well as General Electric and National Grid — “and we found it’s an aging-out workforce. The people who have these skills are 55 and older.” Urbach called the WinWind Program a “youth development pipeline,” an idea attractive enough for it to be named a “World Changing Idea” by Fast Company magazine.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Urbach of the program. “The kids are really excited about it. There are so many job opportunities. We want to grow the industry and keep our young people here.”

Urbach said she will be making another pitch in September to receive funding for another three years of the WinWind Program.