Can An Old Massachusetts Fishing Port Light The World Again? Once known as the City That Lit the World, New Beford's whale oil powered candles and lamps around the country. Now, the Massachusetts city wants to become an energy capital again, but this time with offshore wind.
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Can An Old Massachusetts Fishing Port Light The World Again?

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Can An Old Massachusetts Fishing Port Light The World Again?

Can An Old Massachusetts Fishing Port Light The World Again?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.


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.


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.

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