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May 27, 2024

With new leader, CT Wind Collaborative looks to build regional offshore wind corridor

Contributed Kristin Urbach is the new executive director of the Connecticut Wind Collaborative.

What a difference a year makes.

When the state’s Chief Manufacturing Officer Paul Lavoie attended an international offshore wind energy conference more than a year ago with little knowledge of what Connecticut’s approach to the industry would look like, he felt alone in a room full of experts who believed the Nutmeg State didn’t have a plan for growing the sector.

But in late April, at the 2024 International Partnering Forum (IPF) — considered the largest wind energy conference in the Americas — Lavoie got a different message: Connecticut was establishing itself as a leader in wind turbine technology and energy procurement.

“The industry is telling us that Connecticut is now the gold standard for offshore wind collaboration, and for building a strategic roadmap and executing against that roadmap by bringing multiple states together in a partnership to help grow offshore wind,” Lavoie said of the feedback he got at the IPF conference.

In addition to being the state’s manufacturing czar, Lavoie is board chair of the Groton-based Connecticut Wind Collaborative, a group created last year to bolster Connecticut and the region’s offshore wind energy industry by creating dialogue and partnerships between businesses, legislative officials and stakeholders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The group is beginning to gain its footing, after recently naming its first executive director, Kristin Urbach, who has seven years of offshore wind industry experience.

Urbach most recently served as head of the North Kingstown (R.I.) Chamber of Commerce, a post she held since 2015. That’s where she began her offshore wind energy industry work, leading a business group that consisted of several stakeholders in Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm project, the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.

The Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island is the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm. Rhode Island and Connecticut are collaborating on future wind farm projects.

Urbach, in her new role, reports to a 15-member board, led by Lavoie. She spent her first few weeks on the job meeting board members and brainstorming how the cross-state collaborative group will operate. Speaking about her experience at the International Partnering Forum, Urbach said Connecticut’s collaborative approach to wind industry development is something others are noticing.

“At IPS, everybody was talking about Connecticut’s new collaboration and the connection between the three states,” Urbach said. “A lot of states haven’t done what we’re doing — there are a few, but not many.”

Engaging stakeholders

The offshore wind industry has received greater attention in recent years as Connecticut policymakers try to pursue a clean energy future.

Gov. Ned Lamont has committed the state to a 100% zero-carbon electricity supply by 2040, an aggressive goal that will require tapping into various clean energy sources, including wind.

But the sector faces challenges, including rising construction and financing costs that have put some projects in jeopardy.

For example, Avangrid last fall announced plans to terminate power purchase agreements with Connecticut’s utilities, including its Orange-based subsidiary United Illuminating, for its planned 804-megawatt Park City Wind project, to be located off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. In doing so, Avangrid, cited “unprecedented economic headwinds facing the (wind) industry including record inflation, supply chain disruptions, and sharp interest rate hikes.”

Meantime, Everource announced plans last year to divest its 50% ownership stake in three offshore wind projects in New York and Connecticut.

However, Lamont showed his continued support for wind energy last fall, when he committed Connecticut to joining Massachusetts and Rhode Island in jointly purchasing offshore wind-generated power.

And in March, a three-state solicitation by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island received project proposals from four different developers, including Avangrid and Ørsted.

A high-profile project occurring in Connecticut is Revolution Wind, which has led to a multimillion-dollar investment in the New London State Pier, where the development will be staged. Revolution Wind is expected to generate 304 megawatts of electricity for Connecticut and another 400 megawatts for Rhode Island — enough to power 350,000 homes.

In October, Lamont also announced the publication of Connecticut’s first “strategic roadmap” for economic development in the offshore wind industry, which is being implemented and supported by the Connecticut Wind Collaborative.

The collaborative’s core mission revolves around four pillars: workforce development; infrastructure and real estate; manufacturing supply chain; and research and development.

“Right now, my priority is learning as much as I can about what everybody’s doing and what currently exists,” Urbach said. “And then from there, building those connections, collaborating and conducting meetings with those stakeholders within each pillar.”

Map: Canary Media | Source: U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Energy & Employment Jobs Report, 2023

The multistate collaboration isn’t necessarily new — Connecticut and Rhode Island have already been working together on workforce and supply-chain development because they share a long history of Navy submarine production with General Dynamics Electric Boat, which has facilities in both states.

Under Urbach’s leadership at the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, the business association applied for and won grant funding for jobs-related training and workforce development programs, specifically aimed at Rhode Island’s offshore wind industry, she said.

“We conducted a symposium with all the stakeholders who were involved in the Block Island Wind farm build out as well as adjacent businesses, and what we learned is the workforce is aging out,” Urbach said.

In response, Rhode Island has created state-sponsored career pathway training programs for offshore wind jobs that aim to attract young people to the industry and upskill adult workers for this type of work.

Urbach said her grant-writing experience was crucial for implementing new programming, and she hopes to replicate those types of workforce development initiatives in Connecticut. She’s spent the last several weeks meeting with Connecticut Wind Collaborative board members and local training providers, and the next step is connecting with high schools and universities to discuss programming opportunities in the education system.

“We want to uncover any entity that’s currently providing some type of wind-related classroom exposure or experiential learning opportunities, so I can connect the dots and build a program without completely reinventing the wheel,” Urbach said. “In every industry — it’s hard for them to attract talent. So, you really need to begin with developing those K-through-12 pathways.”

In 2022, Connecticut had 304 wind electricity jobs, which represented 0.42% of the energy workers statewide, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report, produced by the U.S. Department of Energy.

‘Once-in-a-generational opportunity’

The crucial offshore wind-related jobs are tied to the construction, operation and maintenance of wind turbines, Urbach said, in addition to manufacturers needed to build parts. Lavoie said he’s seen estimates that Connecticut has the potential for up to 5,000 offshore wind industry jobs by 2040, and it’s the collaborative’s job to help the state get there.

“We know we’ve already created hundreds and hundreds of jobs, and getting our arms around that is really objective one for the collaborative — what have we already created and what kind of workforce are we going to need?” Lavoie said, pondering future board discussions.

The time is now for Connecticut and the Northeast as a whole to establish and fully flesh out its wind industry, Lavoie said, and he expects to see big leaps in the next several years.

“This is a once-in-a-generational opportunity to stand up a brand-new industry in the United States of America,” Lavoie said.

Reporting from the CT Mirror was included in this story.

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