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Keep our graduates here: build a robust offshore wind power industry in New England

New England is home to some of the first and finest colleges and universities in the U.S. We are also the home of the nation's first offshore wind farm. But this small, five-turbine 30-megawatt (MW) facility off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, is just the beginning.

Thanks to the leadership of the New England states, hundreds—hopefully thousands—more megawatts of offshore wind are coming soon.

New England's greatest strength is the intellectual capital developed by its colleges and universities. Unfortunately, polls show that New England is not always good at retaining graduates after they complete their degrees. We educate the future clean-energy leaders who are needed to keep us competitive in a low-carbon economy. But if the growth of our homegrown industry doesn't keep pace, our graduates and researchers will need to leave the region in search of opportunities.

While offshore wind may be a nascent industry in the United States, it is far from unproven; turbines have been spinning off the coast of Europe for years, and in fact, big European companies are putting their financial capital to work in our waters.

Following the success of the Block Island Wind Farm, states up and down the East Coast are beginning to explore offshore wind to transform their electric power systems—for grid reliability, electric rate stabilization and reduction, and decarbonization—while simultaneously working to support local communities and to reduce any negative impacts.

Our power system, operated as a single system across our six New England states, has undergone much change in recent years. Low-cost natural gas has largely out-competed coal and oil plants. This transition is also fueled by public policy goals aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions that harm public health and contribute to climate change. Pursuant to these public policies, between 2,200 and 3,800 MW of offshore wind should be built off the coast of New England in the next 15 years. This is a step in the right direction, but not enough to support a robust, homegrown industry that will keep intellectual capital and financial returns in our region. Northern European countries realized the potential of offshore wind nearly three decades ago and have 12,000 MW of offshore wind already installed—with plans to double that capacity by 2030.

The diversity of our institutions and graduates is the backbone of our strength. Together, we are training the future engineers, investors, attorneys, biologists, architects, designers, economists, managers, and other environmental professionals to help build this new, homegrown offshore wind industry that will power our New England grid into the future.

We welcome the prospect of a responsibly sited and vibrant offshore wind industry in our regional waters. Not only will offshore wind farms help us combat climate change by replacing retiring fossil fuel power plants, they will serve as tremendous educational and employment assets for institutions of higher education across New England.

The costs released this year for the first offshore wind project in Massachusetts (Vineyard Wind) are much lower than anticipated and very close to the cost of hydroelectricity.

Massachusetts ratepayers will realize about $1.4 billion in economic benefits, and about 3,600 jobs will be created by the Vineyard Wind project. Recent studies show that even modest amounts of offshore wind will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in energy savings and thousands of tons of CO2 emissions prevented annually.

In addition to the existing research we are doing on offshore wind, we are preparing a new generation of highly skilled professionals poised to expand the potential for this growing and necessary industry. UMass Lowell is the lead for the only National Science Foundation-sponsored center on wind energy, WindSTAR, an Industry-University Collaborative Research Center.

New England's colleges and universities can and will help this industry grow even beyond what existing public policy envisions. Our professors, students, and graduates will help ensure a robust offshore wind power industry is built with minimal impact on the marine environment and maximum benefit for our economy and environment. As we educate the leaders of tomorrow, we need to build an industry that will keep our graduates in New England.

This guest column was signed by Dr. Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation, UMass Lowell; Stu DeCew, executive director at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, Yale University; Dr. Kevin B. Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School; Jen McCann, director of U.S. Coastal Programs at Coastal Resources Center and director of Extension Programs for Rhode Island Sea Grant, University of Rhode Island; Dr. Philip Nyhus, director, Environmental Studies Program, Colby College; and April Salas, executive director of the Revers Center for Energy, Dartmouth College.