State labor unions voice support for Deepwater wind farms

Mon, 01/18/2010 - 6:00am

1/16/10 — It took 15 minutes and the message was jobs. That is a summary of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission’s January 13 hearing on Deepwater Wind’s proposal to build eight wind turbines three miles off Block Island.

Wayne Barnes of Pawtucket, a member of the Laborers Union, testified he needed work because he has been unemployed for a year, since completion of the Narragansett Bay Commission’s three-mile combined sewer overflow tunnel in Providence.

Forty percent of Rhode Island union construction workers are out of work, Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building Trades Council, a union umbrella group, told the three PUC members. Once a leader in the industrial revolution, then a jewelry manufacturing center, Rhode Island should become a wind power construction capital, Sabitoni said.

About 40 people attended the hearing at Pawtucket City Hall, the third of four on the Block Island project. All eight speakers stressed the potential for jobs on the project and a second much larger 107-turbine project proposed 15 miles off the Rhode Island coast.

One speaker, construction worker Pat Brady of Pawtucket, also stressed environmental concerns. After decrying pollution in the Blackstone River, he called the project “a golden opportunity to invest in sustainable green energy … so the legacy we leave for our children won’t be what was left for us.”

The final public hearing will be January 20 at the PUC’s Warwick office. Formal hearings on Deepwater’s proposed contract to sell electricity to National Grid for 24.4 cents a kilowatt hour will begin in March. National Grid would then sell some of the power to the Block Island Power Company, lowering island electric rates and eliminating BIPCo’s diesel generators.

Just how many jobs will be created by the project is unclear. After the hearing, Paul Rich, Deepwater Wind’s chief development officer, said because the project may be the first off shore turbines built in the U.S., the company is still deciding how and where to construct it. He and Sabitoni, however, pointed to a $3.7 million federal job training grant announced last week by Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation as proof that the state is positioned to become a hub for off shore wind construction in the Northeast.

Deepwater is in preliminary discussions with Cape Wind, the company pushing a huge wind farm project off Nantucket, Rich said, about an agreement to share construction workers and perhaps facilities at Quonset Point in North Kingstown, R.I. To maintain a steady skilled work force, Rich says, hundreds of workers trained with the grant funds could first build the two Rhode Island projects, then the Cape Wind project and then a second Deepwater project under discussion off the New Jersey coast.

Nodding to Sabitoni, Rich said, “We’ve been working together to make sure this stays on track.”

Sabitoni says a construction center at Quonset would mean union carpenters and pile drivers operating barges, union ironworkers building forms, union operating engineers managing cranes, union laborers pouring concrete and union electricians hooking up wires.

Union members clearly see the wind projects as their best prospect for regular employment. “I don’t see anyone coming in and building hotels and condos anytime soon,” commented Sabitoni.