Energy
2:03 am
Mon June 24, 2013

Can An Old Massachusetts Fishing Port Light The World Again?

Originally published on Mon June 24, 2013 3:21 pm

A shabby old fishing port on the South Coast of Massachusetts was once known as the City That Lit the World. Its whale oil powered candles and lamps around the country.

Now, the city is trying to rekindle that flame with an alternative form of energy: offshore wind.

A Distant History Of Wealth

New Bedford's glory days are long gone. The city suffers from a long list of woes — high crime, persistent unemployment and poor public schools.

For generations, the sea was New Bedford's lifeblood. Now, the water is still there, but the wealth is gone.

You can see just a glimmer of New Bedford's old opulence shining through its cobblestone streets and the whaling captains' old mansions.

"On the eve of the Civil War, New Bedford was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States," says Mayor Jon Mitchell. "New Bedford was to whaling what Detroit was to automobiles."

Striving For New Opportunities

On a chilly May morning, Mitchell joined state officials and local union representatives to break ground on the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal --a 100-million dollar state-funded project.

The port is being described as the first of its kind in the country — big enough to transport wind blades the length of a football field. Locals hope it will serve as the hub for the offshore wind industry and bring in jobs. New Bedford's current employment rate is among the worst in the state.

The Energy Department estimates that if the U.S. takes advantage of its wind potential by 2030, some 20,000 jobs could sprout up around the offshore wind industry.

A quarter of the nation's wind reserves lie just south of Martha's Vineyard, and New Bedford is the closest deep-water port. Mitchell says his city is sitting on the Saudi Arabia of wind.

"New Bedford is the biggest commercial fishing port in America," says Mitchell. "We know what we're doing out on the water."

Contagious Optimism

The mayor's optimism is rubbing off on Justin Silvia, who wakes up at 3:30 am to drive more than an hour to get to his job as a heavy equipment operator. He says he would love to find work closer to home so he could spend time with his three kids. He's trying to land himself a job on this port project.

"There's definitely a big buzz in the area as far as how many jobs it's going to create. I mean, the main focus is get as many New Bedford unemployed workers that are capable and trained properly," he says.

New Bedford is already working with Bristol Community College to secure grants that will train displaced workers.

Skepticism Remains — On The Water And Off

But not all of the folks on the water think offshore wind is the solution to all the city's troubles. Fishermen have been struggling to find work in recent years as the government declared certain waters off limits.

Tony Alvernaz is a fisherman in New Bedford. He wonders how fishermen will be able to navigate around giant wind turbines to find healthy fish.

"New Bedford has been a seafaring city for how many years, how many centuries? And so let's do away with that; let's bring on the wind farm. Is that the answer? I don't think so," he says.

Matt Kaplan, a wind analyst for IHS Emerging Energy Research in Cambridge, says it's a big bet. "Offshore wind will have to be tied to creating jobs in order to really be successful here because of the premium cost."

Kaplan says the problem is that no matter how strong the wind gusts blow, local utility companies have to be willing to pay a premium for pricey offshore wind energy. For now, there are federal subsidies that help nudge development along, but there is no guarantee that the government's helping hand will always be there.

Still, Kaplan said it helps that New Bedford is first in designing an offshore wind-friendly port.

"But whether that's going to make New Bedford the one-stop shop moving forward forever, for being the only port for offshore wind, I think it's a really tough call just because of the need to really create local jobs in each state that has one of these projects," Kaplan says.

Copyright 2013 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

New Bedford, now a run down old fishing port on the coast of Massachusetts - not far from Cape Code - was once known as The City that Lit the World. Back in the 1800s, New Bedford produced much of the whale oil that fueled lamps across the country.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Those glory days are long gone. The city is now beset by high crime, unemployment and other issues of urban decay. But officials are trying to be playing the city's fame as an energy hub, this time using a more sustainable kind of power - offshore wind.

From member station WBUR in Boston, Asma Khalid has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RIPPLING)

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: For generations, water was New Bedford's lifeblood, the source of its wealth. The water is still here, but the wealth is gone. These days, you notice just a glimmer of New Bedford's old opulence in the stained glass windows of the old whaling captain's mansions.

But, Mayor Jon Mitchell remembers it well.

MAYOR JON MITCHELL: On the eve of the Civil War, that New Bedford was the wealthiest city per capita in the Untied States. New Bedford was to whaling what Detroit was to automobiles.

KHALID: Mayor Mitchell is trying to recreate those riches, and, fortunately, he says his city is sitting on the Saudi Arabia of wind.

The federal government has grand plans for offshore wind farms - from Maine all the way to South Carolina. But, no American port is currently capable of towing huge wind turbines out into the ocean.

That's where Massachusetts wants to step in. Last month, the state began construction on a port in New Bedford that will be big enough to transport wind blades the length of a football field.

The hope is that it will help New Bedford become the hub for offshore wind. And with it, bring something this city desperately needs - jobs. Even though fishing remains valuable, the current unemployment rate is one of the worst in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET NOISE)

KHALID: Justin Sylvia wakes up at 3:30 in the morning to drive more than an hour to get to his job as a heavy equipment operator. He says he would love to find work closer to home, so he could spend time with his three kids. He's trying to land himself a job on this port project, and says lots of his friends are too.

JUSTIN SYLVIA: There's definitely a big buzz in the area as far as how many jobs it's going to create. I mean, I know that's the main focus is get as many New Bedford unemployed workers that are capable and trained properly.

KHALID: The Department of Energy estimates that by 2030 - if the U.S. takes advantage of its wind potential - some 200,000 jobs could sprout up around the offshore wind industry. Mayor Mitchell wants his city to grab a bulk of them.

MITCHELL: New Bedford is the biggest commercial fishing port in America, and so we know what we're doing out on the water.

KHALID: But, some of those folks out on the water don't think offshore wind is the solution to the city's troubles.

Tony Alvernaz is a fisherman in New Bedford.

TONY ALVERNAZ: New Bedford's been a seafaring city for how many years? How many centuries? And, so let's do away with that, let's bring on the wind farm. Is that the answer? I don't think so.

KHALID: Fishermen have been struggling to find enough work in recent years - as the government declared certain waters off limits. Alvernaz fears offshore wind will only put more fishermen out of a job. He wonders how they'll navigate around giant wind turbines to find healthy fish. Alvernaz says fishermen are already a dying breed, and he's skeptical offshore wind is their promised land.

ALVERNAZ: The older fishermen are basically retiring or whatever and they're - 50-60-year-old, they're not going not going to get into that industry.

KHALID: But, to be fair, city officials are already teaming up with local community colleges to find grant money that will specifically target displaced workers and help them find new jobs in the clean energy sector. And, just this month, New Bedford's Economic Development Council received funding to train low-income workers for jobs in the green market.

MATT KAPLAN: Offshore wind will have to be tied to creating jobs in order to really be successful here because of the premium cost.

KHALID: Matt Kaplan is a wind analyst for IHS Emerging Energy Research. And, he's right, offshore wind is a big bet. The port alone is costing Massachusetts a hundred million dollars.

Kaplan says, for now, federal subsidies help nudge offshore wind development along, but there's no guarantee that governmental helping hand will always be there. And, if it's not, the jobs will disappear. Still, he says, it helps that New Bedford is first in designing on offshore wind friendly port.

KAPLAN: But, whether that's going to make New Bedford the one stop shop moving forward forever, for it being the only port for offshore wind, I think it's a really tough call just because of the need to really create local jobs in each state that has one of these projects.

KHALID: That's a risk, Massachusetts is willing to take, because if offshore wind picks up, New Bedford could, maybe, light the world again.

For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.