High overhead, Offshore Wind Specialist Rema McManus takes a tentative step off the white steel tower platform and swings herself over the side, suspended in the air by a single nylon rope. The weight of her body strains against her bright orange and black safety harness, a six-pound web of belts, straps, buckles and clamps. Heavy-duty lanyards, attached with four oversized metal hooks, dangle from her vest, one at each side. Lowering slowly at first before picking up speed, she celebrates in mid-descent with outstretched gloved hands and a smile, barely visible under her COVID-19 mask. Safely on the ground, she untethers herself, only to climb back up the ladder and repeat the process.
Rema is one of four students, the first cohort to enroll in a new program designed to train wind turbine technicians at the New College Institute (NCI) in Martinsville, Va. While she spends the week learning to work at heights, the other three are in a classroom nearby, going over the basic technical skills needed for working on turbines. A fifth student had been expected to train with Rema, but illness forced a last-minute cancellation. Full five-day participation is mandatory.
From Tobacco to Textiles and Now Clean Energy
Martinsville was established in 1791 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just north of Virginia’s southern border. For many years, the area economy was based almost entirely on tobacco growing and processing. By 1900, Martinsville and the surrounding area was home to 15 manufacturers of plug (chewing) tobacco, two cigar factories, two tobacco warehouses and a company that made the boxes to ship all the product. For a time, Martinsville was known as the “plug tobacco capital of the world.” The boom ended at the dawn of the 20th century when big tobacco companies began to buy up the factories and consolidate production elsewhere. By 1920, tobacco manufacturing in Martinsville was no more.
As the tobacco firms closed, furniture manufacturing and textile mills migrated to Martinsville from the north, lured by cheap southern labor. By the 1990s, Martinsville’s mills were producing — among other things — three quarters of the t-shirt and sweatshirt cloth sold globally. Twice in a century, the southern city declared itself worthy of a world title: “sweatshirt capital of the world.” Even though 1996 saw a record year of production, the mills began to close, lured again by lower-cost labor, this time overseas. So, too, have the furniture companies shut down, victims of foreign competition.
After a history of boom and bust, Martinsville is poised for better times.
Today, downtown Martinsville is a shadow of its former self. Beautiful old buildings that once housed department stores, restaurants and banks now house an overabundance of hair salons and thrift shops. Many storefronts are vacant, some with their display windows covered in plywood or tattered cloth. “IMAGINE what YOU can do with this space” reads the sign on an old furniture store. “Contact the city of Martinsville for more information.” But the city has not given up on itself.
Pedestrians might be few and far between, but the sidewalks, crosswalks and curbs are clean and in good repair. Signage, streetlights and traffic signals shine like new. Bike racks, benches and trash containers are everywhere, looking like they were installed yesterday. A number of brick buildings have been freshly painted and outfitted with striped, period-correct awnings. A former ladies’ shop and Masonic Temple has been converted to high-end loft apartments and office space. Two blocks down the hill, just beyond the farmer's market, the New College Institute anchors the west side of downtown. After the rise and fall of tobacco, furniture and textiles, this is where the city is hoping to jumpstart the local economy.
Why a Tech School So Far from the Shore?
With the loss of manufacturing jobs in southern Virginia, state- and local-level support began to grow for access to higher learning in this educationally underserved region. The nearest public four-year universities are a two-hour drive from Martinsville. In 2004, the New College Institute opened within existing buildings in downtown Martinsville, enrolling over 100 students. NCI works in partnership with other schools, allowing students to obtain degrees from a number of Virginia’s universities without having to travel. Workforce development and technical training have been part of the mix from the start.
Since July 2014, NCI operates from a purpose-built, three-story, 52,000-square-foot facility with multiple classrooms, communal learning areas and offices. Indoor and outdoor event space is available to rent for conferences, weddings and banquets, cementing the school’s relationship to the town. The Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a state-of-the-art technical training facility, anchors one end of the new building. The expansive, high-ceilinged bay is stuffed with computerized lathe and milling machines as well as tools of every description. Racks of steel, aluminum and brass bars are stacked 6 feet high, left over from a cancelled association with the Rolls-Royce jet engine factory that closed because of COVID-19. It is in this room where Rema McManus is practicing on the recently installed 25-foot-tall wind training tower, standing against a cinderblock wall in one corner.
The Future of Offshore Wind Energy Arrives
Supplying over 7 percent of the nation’s electricity, wind is now the biggest source of renewable energy, passing hydroelectric in 2019. According to the American Clean Power Association, wind energy directly accounts for 120,000 jobs. Another 26,000 workers manufacture wind turbine parts in more than 500 American factories. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists wind technician as one of the fastest-growing careers in the coming decade. Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas account for more than half of the wind electricity generated in all of the United States. The Lone Star State alone generated a quarter of the country’s wind electricity in the past three years while providing 22 percent of the state’s electrical needs and edging out coal in the process. Wind is now the largest source of electricity in Iowa and Kansas.
By far, the greater number of wind farms are on land, with very few in the southeastern states. But that’s about to change.
Virginia-based Dominion Energy recently completed testing on a two-turbine pilot project within a 112,800-acre site 27 miles off the Virginia coast. The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project will be the largest offshore wind farm in the nation, capable of producing 8.8 million megawatts of energy when construction is completed five years from now. CVOW is the first such undertaking to be owned by an electric utility and the first installed in federal waters. The project is expected to create as many as 900 jobs and produce $143 million in economic impact annually during the construction phase. When the wind farm is operational, expectations are that there will be 1,000 new jobs created and over $200 million in annual economic impact. Filling those jobs will require a workforce specifically trained in wind technology.
An offshore installation vessel like this one will take part in the construction of Dominion Energy’s new wind farm. (GustoMSC)
Last October, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the formation of the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance, offering courses certified by the Global Wind Organisation that are essential to the construction and operation of turbines. The alliance is a collaboration between Centura College, which has seven education centers in eastern Virginia, and the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, the largest Coast Guard training center on the East Coast. The New College Institute in Martinsville serves as the host institution.
Rema McManus may be an offshore wind specialist and the very first student to take the heights course at the Institute, but she sits behind a desk at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “I work on funding, grants and proposals,” she says. “Offshore wind is picking up, so it’s going to be vital that we keep it funded.” With more than a passing interest in machinery, the 34-year-old seems well-suited to this class. She has a second job, working as an auto mechanic on weekends where she changes oil, fixes brakes and works on transmissions. “I have a good idea of how things work,” she says. “I’ve been working on my car since the first one I ever got, a ’97 Toyota Corolla. I want to know what’s going on with (a car). I want to diagnose it. I want to fix it.”
Dan Madsen has come from his home base in Orlando to teach this first class in working at heights. A veteran of the Danish Navy, he travels the world, training wind turbine technicians, something he’s been doing for 25 years. “I’ve worked in Japan, I’ve worked in China, you name it,” he says with just a hint of an accent. “Peru, Scotland, Norway. There were no safety programs when I first started.”
In a few days, he will be heading to Iowa. “We like to start with the safety,” says Dan. “Once we know that you can work safe at height and take care of yourself and the other people around you, then we can focus on your technical background, your actual job.” Eventually, the New College Institute will have its own instructors on staff.
As the only student in the inaugural class, Rema gets one-on-one attention from instructor Dan Madsen.
In the course of the week’s training, Rema is often outnumbered three to one in the classroom and on the platform. Because this is a new program, Dan’s supervisor, also from Orlando, is in Martinsville for the week, making sure things go as planned. An auditor is here from Denver, observing from the back of the room, making sure Dan’s instruction conforms to standards prescribed by the Global Wind Organisation (GWO), a consortium of owners and suppliers set up to establish standardized training and safety protocols.
While Rema is immersed in the correct procedures of “manual handling” while working at height, three other students are in a nearby classroom, learning how to service a turbine. Two of the men, already wind and electrical instructors at Centura College in Norfolk, are here to learn more about turbine fundamentals and the process for GWO certification. They will be taking what they learn back to Norfolk where they will apply their newfound knowledge to Centura’s wind training program. The third student is Trevor Martin, a Martinsville native who is already NCI’s advanced manufacturing technician. He hopes to become the school’s wind tech trainer as well. The process could take months. “I’ll have to go into a turbine at some point,” he says. “To get familiar with it. And then I’ll have to work with another instructor, and sit in on their classes, and then they’ll sit in on mine.”
Today, Trevor and his fellow students are clustered into one corner of a bright and airy classroom, each seated before a portable hydraulic trainer. Someone has drawn electrical diagrams and made numeric notations in black marker on three of the four walls. Referring to printed instructions and schematics, they are trying to accomplish basic tasks put forth by instructor Luke Posch, who, like his colleagues down the hall, is also here for the week from Orlando. “All of these components that we’re dealing with are what you would find in a turbine,” says Luke. “We’re manually controlling them and understanding what the schematics look like and how they actually function. If you can understand it, you can be employed for a long time.”
With plans to become a turbine tech trainer, NCI’s Trevor Martin is learning about hydraulics.
Safety Is Part of the Course
Rema is sore after scrambling up and down the training tower for two days, laden with the tools of the trade. Day two included rescuing a 150-pound dummy from the platform. “Wind turbines are 300-400 feet up in the air,” instructor Madsen tells her. “You call 911 and they’re going to stand at the bottom looking up at you and waiting for you to bring the casualty to them. You are the first responder.” The rest of the week will be spent mostly in the classroom, learning how to safely handle materials in and around a turbine followed by two days of first aid. But first, it’s time to head outside and get some experience extinguishing a fire.
A couple of Martinsville firefighters are waiting near the loading dock just off NCI’s machine room. They didn’t come far, as their station is just across the street. An array of fire extinguishers is set up on the driveway, not far from a worn metal tub full of water. A narrow pipeline runs along the ground to the tub from a propane tank. One of the firefighters stands ready to ignite the gas with a lit flare attached to one end of a long pole. A small crowd has gathered on the loading dock as the flare hovers over the tub, which instantly erupts into flame.
Rema practices putting out fires as part of her safety training.
It’s time for Rema to practice what she learned in class just an hour earlier. “Pull the pin, aim at the fire near the base, squeeze the handle and then sweep,” says Dan. “Aim closest to you, then sweep slowly until the fire is completely out.” Crouching low in her helmet, goggles and gloves, Rema aims at the fire and puts it out with a blast from the extinguisher. The process is repeated several times until everyone is confident she’s doing it right. The observers on the loading dock stick around until they’re sure the show is over.
Attracting Students to Martinsville
Instructor Dan Madsen is bullish on the future of wind energy and the number of associated jobs that come with it. “I think we’re very much focused nowadays on bachelor and associates and masters and those things,” he says. “And we need to. But society sometimes forgets that we also need people that can work with their hands and maintain things.”
The New College Institute’s state-of-the-art building stands out in a city that’s seen better times.
Brian Pace, head of advanced manufacturing at NCI, has lived in Martinsville all his life. He is anxious to bring jobs and opportunity to a part of the state that is greatly in need of both. “We’ll see how quickly this grows,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to see us do two trainings a month. Now it’s ‘how do we get people in here? How do we locate the part of the population that this would appeal to?’"
"There are colleges and universities, and then we have this,” Dan says, spreading his arms wide to virtually encompass New College Institute. “It gives a lot of people a second chance.”