Jon Beresford worked in the British coal industry for 23 years, his last job coming 12 years ago as a technical engineer at a power station. By then, his awareness of coal’s impact on pollution and climate change made him take a chance on the fledging UK offshore wind industry.
Today, he is plant manager for the 73-turbine, 219-megawatt Humber Gateway offshore wind farm, run by the energy company E.ON. The wind farm can power 155,000 homes. “When I left coal, people laughed at me,” Beresford said. “I was the only one doing what I was doing. Those coal plants were running 24/7. They said, ‘Wind will never replace coal.’
“Now, I got people who left the coal industry asking me about jobs. Most of my team of engineers came from oil and gas. It was kind of depressing what happened to them but at least they had transferable skills in maintaining power and the field is a lot more exciting.”
The excitement here for offshore wind is unbridled. The Humber estuary region, anchored by the east coast cities of Hull and Grimsby, already has 240 turbines in its waters, with construction and planning underway for another 400. Last month, its projects passed the 1 gigawatt mark of power, on its way to a 3.5 gigawatts.
That offered a blueprint to a New Bedford delegation that visited here this spring as Massachusetts utilities solicit bids for up to the first 800 megawatts of the state’s mandate for 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2027. With hopes of becoming America’s first offshore wind business hub, New Bedford’s mayor and several civic, business, labor, and education leaders wanted to see how the Humber is reviving itself with wind.
This region, similar to New Bedford, had a world-renowned past, particularly for fishing. “When I was coming out of school in the ’60s, you’d see all these men pushing barrels and wagons full of fish,” said Peter Wheatley, a longtime councilor for the North East Lincolnshire Council, which governs Grimsby. “We called the fishermen ‘weekend millionaires’ and ‘three-day millionaires’ for blowing their money in town the moment they got paid.”
The collapse of fishing and loss of other manufacturing jobs sent Grimsby and Hull soaring into respective unemployment rates of 12 percent and 16 percent in 2012, according to government data.
Dave Laister, business reporter for the Grimsby Telegraph, said, “My peer group left town.” The ports along the estuary were still busy with chemical plants and some textiles, but as another councilor, Ray Oxby, put it, “It was not sufficient to take up the slack.”
Offshore wind picked up the slack in a way even some industry experts did not foresee. The UK government went big on offshore wind in the early 2000s with capital grants to seed the earliest wind farms close to shore, starting with two 30-tower projects with turbines of 2 megawatts apiece.
The nation is the global leader in installations, with 1,500 of Europe’s 3,600 turbines dotting its waters, producing enough electricity for nearly all the combined domestic needs of its three biggest cities, London, Manchester, and Birmingham.
That is only the start in the UK and Europe. The quadrupling of turbine power since the early 2000s to 8 megawatts, fierce competition, and efficient supply chains have driven down the once-daunting cost of offshore wind to the level where Germany this year approved for the first time offshore wind projects without government subsidies. Germany, Denmark, and Belgium promised recently to quintuple the continent’s offshore power by 2030, which would cover almost a quarter of the homes in the European Union, based on data from the trade group WindEurope.
The UK is already on track to double its offshore power by 2020 and double it again by 2030. That means jobs. Nationally, a University of Hull study recently predicts that direct and indirect jobs should grow from today’s 17,500 to nearly 40,000 by 2032. Hull and Grimsby will likely go from its current 1,500 full-time offshore workers to more than 6,000 and probably add thousands more indirect workers in local businesses.
Already, unemployment in Hull and Grimsby is half that of five years ago. Hull received a big boost this year by being designated the UK’s “City of Culture” and is building a $47 million concert hall and conference center near a waterfront with ambitious restaurants.
“We’re projecting we’re going to need 13,000 new homes,” Wheatley said.
The centerpieces of offshore wind employment in the Humber are a new and giant $400 million Siemens blade factory and a $7.8 billion investment by Dong. The investments by these German and Danish offshore titans were welcomed despite the region voting overwhelmingly to leave the EU in Brexit.
At Dong’s maintenance operations, wind turbine technician Josh Gallacher once worked at an area oil refinery. “I liked the job where I was but there was a lot of uncertainty,” Gallacher said. “It didn’t take long to see [offshore wind] is the future.”
Clare McVeigh, Dong’s offshore coordinator for the turbines at the Westermost Rough wind farm, had worked for a now-closed gas-fired power plant. Despite no formal training managing the flow of service boats and helicopters, she earned a top company employee award last year. “I love it because it’s an industry where you learn as you go,” she said.
It is an industry that Massachusetts and the US can learn from, if they want to do things right. “I pinch myself when I look at the size of new projects and how fast we scaled up,” said Wendy Sheard, commercial coordinator for Associated British Ports in Grimsby. “I remember standing on the docks no more than four years ago and wondering what was going to happen in this industry. It can happen for you in the US faster than you think.”
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe contributing columnist and a climate and energy fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He can be reached at email@example.com.