Enhancing Blue Tech opportunities: from submarines to wind power

Skilled workforce along both sides of Thames River provides countless high-tech maritime opportunities

The Blue Tech economy is creating opportunities for new business and expansion of existing business on both shores of the Thames River. There is opportunity for large-scale manufacturing, high-tech research and development firms, and the smaller supply-chain companies needed to serve both segments.

And there is opportunity for all of the ancillary businesses that can thrive around a booming, sustainable, local economy — from restaurants and entertainment venues to transportation companies, maintenance firms, retail stores, cleaning services, and a host of other businesses.

Local residents and businesses may just need to look at things a little differently than they have to see the opportunities in Blue Tech. Electric Boat’s submarine contracts — perhaps the first Blue Tech economic driver — built this region and remain at the core of the regional economy, but the skilled workforce those contracts developed, combined with our coastal location, has transformed this area into a hub for various Blue Tech enterprises.

“There’s plenty of opportunity here, especially if people consider the transferrable skills that already exist here,” according to New London attorney Gordon Videll, who doubles as a cheerleader for his native city. His focus on a recent summer morning was business opportunities, but his conversation often veered to quality of life opportunities as well.

He was doing his cheering from perhaps the best vantage point to make his case — a table on the deck of the relaxed Muddy Waters Café, a New London institution where the view over the Thames included high- speed ferries arriving at and departing from New London, a pharmaceutical giant that developed the first Coronavirus vaccine, and Electric Boat. Nearby on the New London shoreline sits the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development campus, and just up the river the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Meanwhile, Amtrak trains running the Northeast Corridor stopped at New London’s historic Union Station.

A few blocks away from Videll’s table sits the restored Art-Deco Garde Arts Center and an eclectic mix of quality restaurants. Just up the river work is underway, through a public-private partnership, to modernize and convert State Pier into a heavy-lift capacity wharf ready to serve the offshore wind power industry and the next generation of cargo ships.

In other words, the region offers solid salaries and an enticing quality of life halfway between New York and Boston without the hassles of either.

Videll is so bullish on his beloved city and new opportunities that he has created Sea Services, a collaborative undertaking that has potential adversaries – commercial fishermen and offshore wind power developers – working together in a Blue Tech environment. The fishermen, who know the maritime landscape better than anyone, provide scouting and safety services to wind farm developers for placement of turbines. They know the prime fishing areas and where fishing gear is located, which makes them diplomats when it comes to negotiating alternative placements for turbines. To work in this new capacity, however, the boats need improved navigation, imaging, and safety equipment, and that equipment and training is supplied in part by the developers.

The fishermen don’t stop fishing, but they can earn additional money in the offseason through this transfer of skills. The improved equipment and training results in safer, more successful fishing boats year-round.

Videll says Sea Services is just one, early example of how local businesses – and budding entrepreneurs – – can benefit from finding new applications in Blue Tech for existing skills and equipment.

Currently, the region’s biggest skills transfer opportunity lies in offshore wind power thanks to a joint venture created by Ørsted, the global leader in offshore wind, and Eversource, New England’s largest energy company and premier electric transmission builder. This new venture is behind the modernization of State Pier, which will be used as the staging point for the company’s three wind farm projects already in the permitting process and others in the pipeline.

Videll wants locals to get their piece of the investments he sees coming this way.

“I saw this avalanche that people can either ski down or get pummeled by,” Videll said. “Clearly wind power is going to happen, so how do we get our piece of the pie,” Videll said. And by “we,” he’s talking about more than fishermen working for Sea Services.

“There’s a lot of talent here and depth of knowledge,” he said, referring to generations of a skilled workforce created by Electric Boat, U.S. Naval Sub Base, and the two Coast Guard facilities. “I want the people who live in New London to benefit from these opportunities.”

Another example of a Blue Tech skills transfer is Thayer Mahan, a Groton-based company established by retired submarine officers Mike Connor and Richard Hine. Their initial focus was developing improved undersea monitoring equipment to better collect seabed mapping images and acoustic data to help the Navy stay current with advances in technology.

Thayer Mahan has transferred those defense industry skills to the wind power industry by providing data to the Ørsted-Eversource joint venture that will help identify the best sites for turbines and cables without harming marine life. Future undersea maintenance work and similar construction projects also represent additional opportunities for what was initially considered a defense contractor.

That skill transfer earned Thayer Mahan a portion of the $8 million available from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium.

Videll isn’t alone in his cheerleading for the region’s skill base. Cheering from across the Thames for more businesses like Thayer Mahan and Sea Services is the Economic and Community Development office of the Groton Planning and Development Services Department.

Sam Eisenbeiser, an Economic Development Specialist in Groton’s ECD office, is focused on making the world aware of the skilled workforce here, which he and his colleagues believe will translate into additional clean, high-paying careers for local residents. He sees offshore wind and other high-tech maritime endeavors as enhancements to an economy largely dependent on military contracts.

“The best outcome for us is to raise the profile of this area and for people to see the opportunities here,” Eisenbeiser said. “Our long-term strategy is to make the region stronger by leveraging the best we can the assets that we have.

“We’ve always had a water-dependent economy here,” Eisenbeiser said. “Blue Tech is where maritime interests converge with technology for more value.”

With Eisenbeiser, Videll and others sounding the same theme from both sides of the river, the region’s opportunities in the Blue Tech sector appear limitless.