In need of jobs, Northeastern North Carolina sees promise in offshore wind

Elizabeth City once sought to lure boaters up the Pasquotank River with free docking at its marina and welcome baskets of wine, cheese and roses.

Today, the “harbor of hospitality” is preparing a new pitch, trying to attract offshore wind manufacturers with the region’s workforce and manufacturing capacity.

“Northeastern North Carolina is a special place,” state Commerce Secretary Machelle Sanders said at a recent summit hosted by the historically Black Elizabeth City State University. “Just as North Carolina has provided a runway for the Wright Brothers to take flight, the region is helping to develop clean energy.”

With two offshore wind farms underway off the Outer Banks and a major turbine blade facility announced just across the state border, the potential in this largely impoverished region is vast. But experts and advocates stress that extreme poverty and economic disparity won’t be erased without effort.

“We have to be strategic about it, to make sure that the communities that really, really need this are benefiting from it,” said Montravias King, an Elizabeth City State graduate and former city councilor. “And if we don’t, it’s not going to happen.”

‘It’s a different world’

In many ways, northeastern North Carolina is a tale of two banks. On the Atlantic Ocean, there’s the overwhelmingly white Outer Banks, once a string of modest fishing villages that today is a multibillion-dollar tourist attraction. Dare and Currituck, the two counties that encompass most of these barrier islands, are some of the state’s wealthiest by income and property value. In the last decade, Currituck’s population grew by 19%, not far behind the Triangle and Charlotte.

Then there are the roughly 20 counties of the mainland, sometimes dubbed the “Inner Banks” by tourism promoters. With few exceptions, these communities have a higher portion of Black people than the state overall. In Bertie County, where the Chowan River empties into the Albemarle Sound, nearly two-thirds of the population is Black, the highest fraction in the state.

Property values in Dare are four and a half times that of Pasquotank County, home to Elizabeth City.

Many feel little connection to the Outer Banks, said King, who now directs clean energy campaigns for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters in Raleigh. “It’s a different world out there.

Sanders acknowledged these inland counties had often been left behind economically.

But she and others at the conference said the entire region could benefit from offshore wind. In March, a report commissioned by her department found the industry was poised to invest $140 billion up and down the East Coast — manufacturing specialized wind turbine components, shipping and assembling them at sea. “We do deserve our fair share of that,” she said.

Already, there’s economic activity underway in northeastern North Carolina because of two major offshore wind projects. Twenty-seven miles east of Virginia Beach, a Dominion Energy project is scheduled to begin delivering power in 2026. With a capacity of 2.6 gigawatts, the wind farm could create enough power for nearly 700,000 homes.

Avangrid Renewables plans a similarly sized project off the North Carolina coast, Kitty Hawk Offshore, slated for completion in 2030.

Power from both projects will come onshore to Virginia, and they’ll be built and staged in that state’s Tidewater region. Together, they’re expected to create upwards of 1,700 construction-related jobs annually. Once the wind farms are up and running, they’ll spur another 2,000 jobs for technicians, vessel managers and other operations and maintenance workers.

Most of these jobs will be in Virginia, but within reach of Tar Heels across the border, many of whom already commute north for work.

‘The opportunity for job creation is huge’

These two wind farms could be just the tip of the iceberg. According to the March report, 41 gigawatts of offshore wind could be installed up and down the Eastern seaboard by 2035. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat in his second term, wants a fifth of that to be off North Carolina’s coast.

With today’s technology — in which one turbine has about 6 megawatts of power capacity — those figures translate to more than 1,000 turbines off the state’s coast alone, with another 5,500 or so off the rest of the East Coast.

The structures require specialized parts, like towers 30 stories high, blades the length of football fields, and nacelles that would dwarf most office buildings. Today, all these components are made in Europe — creating an unprecedented opening for suppliers in North Carolina.

“There’s nothing else like this where you have a multibillion-dollar global industry that has zero footprint in the United States,” said Steve Kalland, the director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center and contributor to the March study. “It’s wild.”

Even when the ocean-based turbines reach the end of their useful lives, they’re likely to be refitted with the latest technology and reused. Manufacturers will need a steady workforce for decades to come. “It’s a multigenerational opportunity,” said Kalland. “We’re not just going to build wind turbines for five years and then everybody’s unemployed.”

Though the Northeast states are ahead of the Southeast ones when it comes to establishing a market for offshore wind — requiring some 20 gigawatts of the resource by 2035 — there’s still ample chance for North Carolina and its neighbors to play a leading role in the supply chain.

That’s part of why Cooper joined the governors of Maryland and Virginia last year in an agreement to work cooperatively to boost the region’s participation in the offshore wind supply chain — including through workforce training, enhancing deepwater ports, and upfitting and expanding factories.

It’s already paying off. Last month, Siemens Gamesa announced it would build the country’s first offshore wind turbine blade facility in Portsmouth, Virginia, creating an estimated 300 direct jobs.

The factory is expected to supply the entire East Coast, but another major blade maker in North Carolina is not out of the question, Kalland said. And there’s still potential for other major factories to produce towers, foundations, undersea cables, nacelles and more.

“All of these things are going to have to get sourced out here in some way, shape or form,” he said. “We really think that the opportunity for job creation — as you work your way through the parts and pieces — is huge.”

North Carolina’s manufacturing sector is already the largest of the East Coast states, and many companies here already produce onshore wind turbine components. More than 40 have expressed interest in participating in the offshore wind supply chain.

At Wilmington, Morehead City, and Southport, the state also has opportunities to enhance its ports to assemble and ship large offshore wind components. Radio Island, between Morehead City and Beaufort, is considered the best near-term option.

Jeff Andreini, the vice president of new energy for Crowley Marine Services, glowed about the site at the Elizabeth City State conference. “Radio Island is a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “It’s a direct shot out to the Atlantic Ocean.”

And though North Carolina is a so-called right-to-work state, which allows workers to be represented by unions without having to pay dues, the state AFL-CIO is still hopeful that offshore wind could help inject more union jobs into the state’s economy. “It’s so early and it’s so new,” said Aiden Graham, campaign manager for the group, “that nothing is set in stone.”

‘We’re ideally situated’

To be sure, not all of these supply chain opportunities are in the state’s northeast corner, and it’s not the only area struggling economically. But experts and locals point to evidence that the region could get a significant boost from the industry.

First, there’s the spillover effect from Virginia. “There is a significant workforce opportunity, even if a lot of this manufacturing and construction work happens in the Hampton Roads area,” Kalland said. “There’s not enough specialized people in Hampton Roads — they’re going to be drawing people from all over the place, and northeastern North Carolina is clearly one of those places.”

Second, there’s the presence of “anchor companies,” which provide direct jobs in manufacturing major components and open the door to industries further down the supply chain. Of the five existing potential anchor companies listed in the March report, three have a major presence in northeastern North Carolina.

One is Avangrid, which also operates the state’s only land-based wind farm, just outside of Elizabeth City. Based in Virginia Beach, Ashley McLeod directs stakeholder engagement for the company’s Kitty Hawk project. At the conference, she stressed its expected boon: a $2 billion economic impact.

Another potential anchor in the area is L.S. Cables, a New Jersey company with a facility in Tarboro, just east of Rocky Mount in Edgecombe County, the most economically distressed in the state.

The company already supplies onshore wind and solar projects in the United States, according to the March report, and the Tarboro factory could, “possibly with some modifications, play a key role to support the ocean cable needs” of offshore wind.

Perhaps most promising is Nucor Steel, the largest U.S. steel producer in the country, with headquarters in Charlotte and a sizable facility in Hertford County.

“They very much want to be part of constructing the towers,” said Amy Braswell, the economic development director of Ahoskie, the county’s largest town, population 4,659. The interest is already having a ripple effect. “We’re contacted by people who want to be in proximity to Nucor,” she said, “to work with them.”

The area’s numerous rivers and sounds could serve to transport large components by barge up to Virginia ports and down to North Carolina ones. The area also has a network of railroads and highways that ease transport.

“We are not as susceptible to storm damages and things that you have to worry about closer to the coast — yet we are an hour from anything,” Braswell said. “We think we’re ideally situated for it.”

‘Not a foregone conclusion’

Still, these economic opportunities could be limited if North Carolina misses its offshore wind targets set by Cooper — not an impossibility.

While the federal government is moving forward on a lease area 17 miles off the state’s southernmost shores, it will have to overcome opposition from over half a dozen local governments who oppose any turbines beachgoers might glimpse from the sand.

At the same time, a Trump-era ban on offshore wind, set to take effect next July, must be lifted by Congress for any other wind energy areas off North Carolina’s coast to come to fruition. The Build Back Better bill contains language that would do just that, but its fate is still uncertain.

Fulfilling Cooper’s targets will almost certainly require additional state-level legislation, said Simmons. Even with a new law requiring a 70% reduction in Duke Energy power plant pollution by 2030, the state probably needs specific mandates for offshore wind to draw development off its coast and supply chain jobs with it.

“This is such a new industry that we’re bound to get part of it,” she said, “but it will require a designated effort for North Carolina to capture what we know is economically possible.”

This story was originally published November 25, 2021 7:00 AM.

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