UNIONDALE, NY – Deidre Helberg wandered the conference room, past the booths occupied by construction companies, shipping companies and cable manufacturers, and wondered where she fit in.
Like most people here, Helberg was drawn to the fair by the possibility of supplying equipment for an offshore wind farm project planned off Long Island. But unlike most people here, Helberg is black. She was used to this; After nearly two decades running a company that sells electrical equipment to utilities, transportation authorities and universities, Helberg, 60, is used to being the only black woman in the room.
“I don’t even exist,” she said, looking at the mostly white faces milling around a nondescript conference room at a local Marriott hotel.
Now she hopes the offshore wind farms will expand her business and allow her to train a new generation of black entrepreneurs in the power business.
“I tell people all the time, ‘If you’re involved in climate change and you want to help the planet, you have to really understand that this is about humanity,'” Helberg said. “When you say ‘diversity, inclusion and justice,’ that includes everyone, all of us as human beings. And so it just opens the door to careers, job training and a new industry that’s not really new.”
Whether businessmen like Helberg can get offshore wind jobs is a key test for the industry as it prepares to begin a construction boom along the Atlantic coast.
President Joe Biden and Northeastern governors have sold offshore wind as a way to green the energy sector and create jobs, particularly in communities of color. They claim it amounts to a one-two punch, offering economic scale for workers while reducing air pollution from power plants in black and brown communities (Climatewire13 October 2021).
But renewable energy has mixed results when it comes to creating jobs for people of color. The percentage of Latinos and Asians working in the wind industry dwarfs their numbers in the national workforce, according to the Department of Energy. Blacks, by contrast, made up 7 percent of the workforce in 2020, trailing their 12 percent national workforce average. (Onshore wind farms account for nearly all wind industry employment in the United States. The Department of Energy does not provide demographic data for the nascent wind farm sector.)
“As an advocate, this is one of the main reasons why we say climate justice is racial justice and energy justice,” said Raya Salter, an environmental justice consultant in New York. “To get to the root causes of energy inequality, environmental injustice – that’s the work we have to do.”
Offshore wind is a pillar of US climate strategy. Biden has set a goal of installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes and reduce emissions by 78 million tons a year. Placing turbines in the ocean is especially important for the densely populated Northeast, where there is little open space for large renewable energy projects.
Biden, along with Northeastern governors and offshore wind developers, emphasized creating a diverse workforce. The Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative aims to direct 40 percent of all climate investments to disadvantaged communities. It echoes a New York law that requires the state to direct at least 35 percent of clean energy and energy efficiency spending to areas that are typically poor and polluted.
New York’s contracts with offshore wind companies give preference to developers who commit to working with minority- and women-owned businesses. The state Energy Department is also investing $120 million in workforce training targeting underserved communities and priority populations, which include low-income households, people with disabilities and those previously incarcerated, said Aron Ashrafioun, spokesman for the State Energy Research New York. and the Development Administration.
“It has long been the policy of New York State to maximize opportunities for the participation of state business enterprises, including minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs), as bidders, subcontractors and suppliers in procurement contracts,” Ashrafioun wrote. in the email.
However, challenges remain. While New York gives preference to offshore wind farms that commit to working with minorities and women, there is no formal requirement that they do so. The state also runs a program designed to match large companies with businesses run by people of color. But many entrepreneurs struggle with the certification process, which can take two years, said Helberg, who also heads the US Coalition of Black Women Businesses, a nonprofit that advocates for black women entrepreneurs.
Delay can be costly when it comes to offshore wind farms, as developers rush to find suppliers and vendors for their projects. She worries that the backlog will lead offshore wind farms to claim they can’t find minority- or women-owned companies to work with. Helberg has heard similar excuses for her career.
“You’ll get, ‘I can’t find anyone,'” she said. “I’m going, ‘I’m here.'”
‘It won’t be easy’
Both the promise and challenges facing offshore wind were on display in November, when local contractors and companies from across the New York metro area gathered for a Sunrise Wind Supply Chain Forum. The 94-turbine project will be built in the waters between Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard in the coming years, making it one of the larger projects planned along the East Coast.
The forum was intended to connect local contractors with large suppliers hired by the two companies building the project: Ørsted A/S, a Danish wind farm developer, and Eversource Energy Corp., a New England utility.
Several black, Hispanic and Asian entrepreneurs and businesspeople were in the crowd, listening to officials from Ørsted and Eversource describe the type of equipment and services they need.
Business varies. Construction crews are needed to dig trenches for the transmission cable. Traffic control and food service are needed to support construction crews.
A representative of Korean cable manufacturer LS Cable & System told the crowd that the company is looking for local logistics companies to help transport the power line when it arrives in the United States.
Once the offshore wind project becomes operational, Ørsted officials said they will need a host of people to support their onshore operations, ranging from IT systems and waste management to forklift and building maintenance.
The company’s representatives emphasized that they try to engage a diverse group of businessmen, but admitted that it can be a challenge. Every aspect of the project — from placing the turbines and substation in the ocean to laying the transmission cables on land — is a major infrastructure project in itself, said Michael McMahon, Ørsted’s supply chain manager.
This can make it difficult for smaller companies to know where they fit, especially in a new industry. Even knowing who to contact can be difficult. The solution in many cases comes down to basic networking, he said.
“There are people in the room that I’ve sat down with and tried to clarify the industry a little bit and then focus and say, these are the vendors that need to be talked to and, in many cases, targeted to the individual,” McMahon told the crowd.
Later, McMahon walked around the conference room with Clifford Exilo, an HVAC installer from Brooklyn. He introduced Exil, who is Black, to vendors at various booths, giving Exil the opportunity to ask contractors about their needs and showcase his services.
A former military engineer, Exil, 43, worked at JPMorgan Chase & Co. for six years. before leaving banking for commerce. Office work, he said, was less attractive than field work.
The success of offshore wind farms in Europe shows how promising the industry could be in the United States, he said, noting that Ørsted’s facilities will need the kind of HVAC systems he can install.
Exil called the industry “a big game changer,” adding, “this is not a new technology. It’s not a new industry. If you look overseas, they’ve retired people from this industry. This is not smart to me. I’m going to bring as many people into this as possible that I know.”
But actually breaking into the industry can be a challenge. Many of the companies competing for Sunrise Wind contracts are large, with teams of people focused on building relationships with offshore wind developers. They can also provide a range of services needed by companies such as Ørsted and Eversource, reducing the number of contractors they would have to work with.
Exil said Ørsted seemed sincere in his approach to black-owned businesses.
“I feel like a fair shake. But it always feels like a fair shake at first,” he said. “This is not my first conference. This is not my first conversation with a developer. It justifiably takes time. You don’t get a contract because you had one interview. You are trying to infiltrate a large industry.”
He added: “I’m realistic. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible.”
Helberg echoed that sentiment. It hopes offshore wind farms will buy transformers, arresters and other electrical equipment from its business. Developers seem to be making a real effort to work with people of color, but they face bureaucratic hurdles and a legacy of ingrained bias in American society, she said.
Many industries are happy to promote black women in marketing materials, she added. But jobs are what these women really need. It would pave the way for a new, more diverse generation, ensuring Helberg wasn’t the only black face in the crowd.
“You have to make a person like me bigger so I can make them bigger,” she said. “It’s just simple.”