As a golden sunrise lights up New Bedford’s commercial fishing fleet, an unusual passenger ship is steaming out of the harbor toward Vineyard Wind.

The vessel is painted all over in a single color — battleship gray — though it’s not military or law enforcement.

Seated at the helm, Captain Frederick Spaid says the look is deliberate.

“We were coming around Cape Hatteras this spring and came up on a catamaran sailboat. He calls us up on the radio, ... and he said, 'Are you guys with the Navy or the Coast Guard?' I said, 'Neither one,’” Spaid says, laughing. “But we do have that impression, and that is intentional, absolutely."

Armed with cameras and binoculars, the crew is looking for foreign vessels building or doing other work to support offshore wind farms. The ship, dubbed the Jones Act Enforcer, is funded by a trade group that says not enough offshore energy jobs are going to Americans.

On board the vessel is the group’s president and CEO, Aaron Smith.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he says. “That’s what provides transparency, is being out here, seeing what they’re doing … and showing that this isn't the number of U.S. jobs, good paying jobs, that we were promised.”

Members of the Offshore Marine Service Association own vessels such as tugboats and supply ships. They’ve earned their bread and butter on oil and gas. Now, they’re turning their attention to offshore wind — an industry that has promised clean energy and skilled U.S. jobs.

Yet, with a global market for labor and supplies, some question how much money from offshore wind is staying local.

Setting eyes on Vineyard wind

Almost three hours south of New Bedford, the sky matches the gray of the ship.

Through a bank of fog on the horizon, Smith spots the new electric substation for Vineyard Wind.

A man in a light blue polo shirt and baseball cap holds onto a railing on the deck of a ship as he looks across the water to an electricity substation and ships.
Aaron Smith, president and CEO of the Offshore Marine Service Association, looks out at an electricity substation that will handle power for Vineyard Wind. To the right of the substation are two work boats, one jacked up to create a platform. Smith says the vessel at right is an Italian ship doing cable-handling work that could be done by Americans.
Jennette Barnes CAI

It has a yellow, steel-frame foundation. At first, the facility on top is obscured by fog. But he can see two work boats in the water, including a cable-handling vessel he says is from Italy.

“The Italian cable vessel is pulling the cables from the sea floor, pulling them and connecting them to the substation,” he says. “That was a job that U.S. companies bid. U.S. Mariners could be doing that work, but they can find a foreign vessel to do it cheaper.”

He alleges that work like this, and similar work on nearby South Fork Wind, could be a violation of the federal Jones Act.

The century-old Jones Act says that transportation of goods between any two points in the United States must use American-owned vessels, built and registered here, which means they would also have American crews.

Where it applies and doesn’t is a matter of litigation and philosophical differences.

What the wind farms say

In response to remarks by the Offshore Marine Service Association, Vineyard Wind said its project complies with all U.S. laws – the Jones Act included.

Spokesman Andrew Doba said Vineyard Wind would like to see Congress create more incentives for U.S. vessel construction and workforce training.

A wide boat sitting on four posts just above the water. The boat has a tall tower on one end.
The Danish wind turbine installation vessel Sea Installer is flanked by two work boats at the site of Vineyard Wind on an overcast day, Aug. 17, 2023. A yellow foundation, called a monopile, is visible to the right of the ship.
Jennette Barnes CAI

At South Fork Wind, three-quarters of all the work vessels are American, said Tory Mazzola, head of communications for Orsted.

“Whenever possible, we use American vessels and crews,” he said. “And the industry is just getting started, so we're sort of in, like, that first phase.”

He said for many tasks, including installation of turbines, U.S. vessels don’t exist yet.

Orsted and Eversource, the parent companies of South Fork Wind, are investing in their own wind farm maintenance vessel. And for a later project, they plan to use the first U.S.-built turbine installation vessel, now under construction in Texas.

Mazzola said the claim that wind developers are getting away cheaper with foreign labor doesn’t hold up, because developers have to spend additional money for American barges to ferry components out to the site.

“And if we were able to use a U.S.-flagged vessel, we wouldn't need to do that,” he said. “So it's really not a matter of cost. We want to use U.S. vessels.”

Balancing interests

At the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, Abe Silverman directs a program on barriers to clean energy. He says offshore wind requires a delicate balance between three things:

“We need speed, necessary to combat the ravages of climate change; but we also need economic development, and we also need to keep costs to consumers affordable,” he said.

Critics of the Jones Act say it comes with more problems than benefits. They say the shipping restrictions raise retail prices, slow disaster aid to islands, and are holding back the transition to clean energy.

But the city of New Bedford sees it differently.

For one thing, turbine installation ships don’t fit though the hurricane barrier. So using American barges brings work to the waterfront.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says while Vineyard Wind is trying to use as many American workers as possible, the city has sometimes had to push the company to look for its U.S. workforce locally before casting a wider net.

“This is an ongoing conversation,” he said. “We have sort of a trust-but-verify approach.”

For host communities like New Bedford, local jobs weigh heavily in the balance between speed, price, and opportunity in offshore wind.

Corrected: September 08, 2023
This story has been updated to correct the first name of Capt. Frederick Spaid.