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OUR VIEW: Small South Jersey town transitions with energy industry

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Paulsboro marine terminal

A rendering shows what the marine terminal at the Port of Paulsboro will look like when the EEW American Offshore Structures factory making foundations for offshore wind turbines is finished.

While the Inflation Reduction Act concentrates on clean energy incentives that could drastically reduce overall U.S. emissions, it also buoys oil and gas interests by mandating leasing of vast areas of public lands and off the nation's coasts. It locks renewables and fossil fuels together: If the Biden administration wants solar and wind on public lands, it must offer new oil and gas leases first. As a result, U.S. oil and gas production and emissions from burning fuels could keep growing, according to industry analysts and climate experts. With domestic demand sliding, that means more fossil fuels exported to growing foreign markets, including from the Gulf where pollution from oil and gas activity plagues many poor and minority communities. To the industry, the new law signals Democrats must abandon the notion that fossil fuels could be rendered obsolete and instead work with companies so drilling can continue, said Andrew Gillick with Enverus, an energy analytics company whose data is used by industry and government agencies. The leasing provisions mark a failure in efforts by environmentalists and social justice advocates to impose a nationwide leasing ban. The movement's high point came when Biden followed campaign pledges to end new drilling on federal lands with an order his first week in office suspending lease sales. Republicans complained the administration still wasn't holding enough sales even after a federal judge blocked Biden's order. On Wednesday a federal appeals court struck down an injunction that had blocked the leasing suspension, but the impact could be minimal because of the new law's mandates.

Tapping the vast wind resource in the ocean off New Jersey for its gigawatts of renewable power requires a new industry. Since the first project, Ørsted Ocean Wind 1, will be 15 miles off Atlantic City, many of the thousands of good-paying jobs expected to be created will be in South Jersey.

Where exactly isn’t clear because establishing the new industry will take years. While Ørsted already has some facilities and plans for others, the first heavy industrial plant is taking shape on the other side of South Jersey in the little town of Paulsboro.

There EEW American Offshore Structures, a unit of a German company, is developing a plant to build the heavy, tall foundations for offshore wind turbines, called monopiles. The plant will require about 500 workers, making it the largest employer in the town of 6,000.

Paulsboro could be the shining example for one of the great challenges to the clean energy programs of government — how to move its union allies from the huge oil and gas industries to the wind, solar, and home and vehicle electrification it is mandating and subsidizing. The Gloucester County borough has long been dominated by a petrochemical refinery, which reduced operations and jobs during the pandemic. The turbine-foundation plant will pay welders $25 to $32 an hour and painters $24 to $27 an hour, an EEW official told NJ Spotlight.

The company expects to produce about 100 of the monopiles a year when fully operational by 2025. That’s about the number Ørsted will need for the first project, which will generate about 1.1 gigawatts, or enough to power about 500,000 homes.

Each 2,500-ton, steel-enclosed foundation will be 40 feet in diameter and 400 feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty. After they’re placed in the ocean floor, turbines atop them will rise about 850 feet above the water’s surface.

EEW American Offshore Structures picked Paulsboro for the same reason as the refinery. Just west of Woodbury on the Delaware River across from Philadelphia International Airport, the Port of Paulsboro has access to the deep-channel shipping the businesses require. The massive monopiles will be floated down the Delaware River under two bridges to the New Jersey Wind Port being developed at Alloway Creek, Salem County. Only there, where ships no longer face any vertical restrictions on the course out to sea, will the monopiles be joined with other turbine components for transport to offshore sites.

New Jersey is centrally located in the East Coast’s wind energy lease areas and has moved quickly to develop the industry. Officials hope that will bring the state an outsized share of the $109 billion expected to be invested in U.S. offshore wind this decade. The federal government supports installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power, and more than half of this national goal could be reached in New Jersey and New York alone.

Other East Coast states have the same ambitions, and some have gotten even faster starts. Many factors, including market forces, will determine how much each succeeds.

Hard as it is for the public to accept sometimes, much of the future remains necessarily unpredictable. The Paulsboro plant is planned to operate for 50 years, but if another, better and cheaper source of energy arises — fusion, for example — demand for columns longer than a football field and heavier than 17 houses will disappear.

As we’ve said before, coastal states could have developed the U.S. offshore wind industry together, saved ratepayers a lot of money and shared the industry’s benefits fairly. Officials preferred to have money to spend, contracts to award and the increased political power that comes with deciding who gets those benefits.

Offshore wind executives lament that this is always how it’s done, including in Europe where the industry is well-established. Given that, New Jersey has made a good start on getting its share of a resource available only to it and a handful of other states.

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