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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LT&C

Louisiana’s first wind energy degree program prepares new industry workforce

When they’re not studying hydraulic systems, electric motors and coastal ecology, the inaugural class of a first-of-its-kind community college program will be diving into a bayou, climbing towers and dangling from ropes more than 50 feet in the air.

This fall, Nunez Community College in Chalmette will launch a two-year program that trains students as entry-level turbine technicians for the growing wind energy sector. Graduates will be equipped to work high in the sky and far out at sea, supporting the development of planned offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s definitely a lot of hands-on training,” said Jacqueline Richard, Nunez’s Coastal Studies Program manager. “It’s very practical because we want to make people as employable as possible.”

Nunez is the first college or university in Louisiana to offer a wind energy-related degree program and the first community college in the Southeast to offer an associate degree focused on wind energy, Richard said.

The program is geared toward young people looking to start a career and experienced workers from the oil and gas industry who may want to broaden their horizons.

“All across the [oil and gas] supply chain, there’s a lot of transferable skills,” said Matheus Chagas, director of renewable energy projects at Grand Isle Shipyard, a Louisiana company that’s long served the oil and gas industry but is expanding into offshore wind. “All the services we’ve deployed for oil and gas can be deployed for offshore wind.”

While Louisiana has long tied its economy and identity to fossil fuel extraction, these resources are finite and job prospects are dwindling. Burning oil and gas also releases greenhouse gases, contributing to sea level rise, intensifying hurricanes and other dangers related to climate change.

“Wind will always be here, whereas fossil fuels will not,” Richard said. “It brings energy to our state in a sustainable way.”

The program offers free tuition to this year’s cohort of 20 students, who could earn well beyond Louisiana’s median income of $50,000 once they graduate.

“Starting pay with this kind of technical diploma is $60,000,” Richard said. “It sets students on a fantastic path with little debt.”

Other Louisiana schools are also offering pathways in the wind energy sector. Late last year, the University of New Orleans announced the first five engineering students in its inaugural Wind Energy Hub scholar program. Each student receives a $5,000 scholarship and a paid internship with German wind energy developer RWE or a Louisiana company that has helped build wind farms or support vessels, such as Edison Chouest Offshore of Cut Off and Keystone Engineering of Mandeville.

Nunez hopes to link its program to UNO’s, allowing two-year degree graduates to seamlessly transition to the larger school and eventually earn a four-year degree.

Dunking and climbing

Courses in the Nunez program range from environmental sciences and technical repair and engineering classes to in-the-field safety trainings that replicate work at onshore and offshore wind farms.

“They’ll be dunked in the water and rescued in Bayou Bienvenue,” Richard said of a water safety course that’s planned near Lake Borgne. “We didn’t want to do it in a crystal clear pool because that’s not what the Gulf of Mexico is like.”

Students will also practice working from heights with ropes and other safety equipment.

Scholarships for the program, which amount to a full ride for the first class, were funded by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program.

Nunez developed its curriculum with Energy Innovation, a wind energy training and education center in Norway. The center trained and certified Nunez’s instructors in Egersund, Norway late last year.

“Rather than re-create the academic wheel, we decided to partner with someone who has mapped it all out already,” Richard said.

In April, the program passed an audit and inspection by the Global Wind Organization, the top sanctioning body for the wind energy industry. The GWO’s stamp of approval means the program’s graduates will be qualified to enter the wind energy workforce in the U.S. and abroad.

Wind workforce

The U.S.’s first utility-scale offshore wind project started spinning off the coast of New York in March, and two more large projects are under construction near Massachusetts.

The New York wind farm and a few smaller projects on the East Coast amount to about 240 megawatts of offshore wind energy capacity in the U.S.

Federal energy regulators are gearing up for a second offshore lease sale in the Gulf after the first one drew just one bid last year. The winning proposal by RWE aims to build a wind farm near Lake Charles in the coming years. Two smaller wind projects in Louisiana-managed waters, which extend three miles from the coast, are planned near Port Fourchon and Cameron Parish.

The pace of offshore wind construction is far behind the Biden administration’s goal of generating at least 30,000 megawatts by the decade’s end. The reasons are varied: supply chain delays, high interest rates and rising inflation.

A lack of trained workers has also been a factor, according to research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which recently estimated the U.S.’s offshore wind workforce at less than 1,000 people. To reach the administration’s goals, the industry would need to hire 43,000 more workers and add 33,000 people in support services, according to NREL.

“Skilled trades are some of the most important positions for the offshore wind energy industry,” NREL researcher Jeremy Stefek said. “It represents a pretty big gap that will need to be filled for the industry to grow.”

Louisiana companies with roots in the offshore oil and gas industry have been applying their offshore know-how in the wind industry for nearly a decade. Six Louisiana firms supplied designers, engineers, ship operators and marine welders to help build the U.S.’s first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine project off Rhode Island, in 2016.

Nearly a quarter of all offshore wind work contracts in the U.S. have gone to Gulf-based firms, with about $1 billion in investments flowing to the region’s ship and fabrication yards in recent years, according to the Oceantic Network, an industry trade group.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry’s role in Louisiana has been shrinking. The number of oil and gas jobs has been cut by about half over the past decade. The industry now employs less than 2% of the state’s workforce.

Richard said the loss of these good-paying jobs, many of which were accessible to people with little more than a high school diploma, has been painful in many communities, including St. Bernard Parish, where Nunez is based. The parish’s poverty rate has grown from 14% to nearly 23% over the past two decades.

“We’re trying to back pathways to high-earning jobs that don’t require four years of college,” Richard said. “This is a generational investment that our students and maybe some of their kids can take advantage of.”


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