July 2011

A Greener Grid? Not Without Eminent Domain Laws, IBEW Says
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Jim Dahlberg likes what he sees each morning when he steps out of his front door in South Range, Wis., and heads to work: a sinewy section of high-voltage transmission cables channeling power across his community in the state's northwest and along to Wausau, 200 miles southeast.

It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing structure, the Sixth District International Representative concedes. "Some people don't like looking at them, but we've got to have lines like this to move power from where it's generated to where it's needed."

This line—the Arrowhead Weston line—that runs through Dahlberg's neighborhood transports a mix of energy, including wind and hydroelectric, from Minnesota and Manitoba to customers in the Badger State. Costing more than $135 million, the project employed about 400 area IBEW members during its construction three years ago.

As a project that brings clean power to customers hundreds of miles from where it's produced, and as a source of solid jobs, Arrowhead Weston is a dual victory championed by both green energy supporters and union leaders.

But elsewhere in the nation, friction persists. The irony, Dahlberg says, comes from some in the environmental community who are celebrating renewable sources of energy—especially wind and solar—but who oppose large construction projects to expand transmission lines to carry such power.

This is why labor leaders are encouraging local and state legislatures to adopt eminent domain laws giving governments greater ability to approve the construction of transmission lines to further connect the nationwide power grid.

Eminent domain laws allow local, state or federal government to acquire private property for public use. In the process, governments are required to pay just compensation—or what the property is worth—to the landowner.

"You've heard of NIMBYs—people who say, 'Not in my backyard,'" Dahlberg said. "I guess you could call me an IMFY— 'In my front yard.' We have to do this if we want to be serious about going greener with our power, and the only way that can happen is with eminent domain."

The nation's electrical grid network is both aging and underdeveloped. Some sections are nearly six decades old and weren't designed to carry massive loads of power over long distances. This creates energy backlogs that are hampering the development of the green sector at a time when our nation increasingly needs more renewable power. With more eminent domain laws on the books, labor leaders say, the industry will be better primed to help meet the energy demands of the future.

A Real Alternative?

Wind energy is the most economically viable renewable resource. And the breezy expanses in areas like the Dakotas and Kansas could produce enough power that—if properly harnessed—could help meet the Obama administration's mandated energy standard of 80 percent of the country's electricity coming from clean sources by 2035.

The 2005 energy bill directed the Department of Energy to conduct studies to develop so called "energy corridors"—areas rich enough in wind activity to make construction of turbines cost-effective and beneficial to the nation's power infrastructure.

"But there's not adequate transmission yet to transport the power, and every step of the way there's opposition," said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter.

As a prime example, he cites Pennsylvania—which inhabits a large section of the wind energy corridor—where some state and local politicians have resisted efforts to build transmission lines.

Additional feedback from many in the environmental community shows "excitement that there's supposedly going to be all these new green jobs," Hunter said. "But there are no green jobs in wind if we don't have transmission to transport energy and connect it to the grid."

Legal Clouds in Big Sky Country

Chuck Dixon and Dan Flynn know all too well how lack of these laws can tie up major projects intended to bring power—especially renewables—to energy-hungry areas. The Butte, Mont., Local 44 business manager and the assistant business agent, as well as their members, have been eyeing a $215 million project called the Montana-Alberta Tie Line for years. Stretching more than 200 miles, the line will connect electricity markets from Great Falls to those north of the Canadian border, providing a potential boon for the state's wind energy developers and providing jobs for local members.

Last December, a court ruling by a judge in Glacier County struck down eminent domain for transmission projects, threatening the line.

But a bill passed last month by the Montana state legislature stated that utilities do have the right of eminent domain in transmission projects, a development indicating that legal skirmishes could still cloud the landscape in the near future.

In a recent op-ed in the Helena Independent Record, Flynn and Chuck Magraw—an attorney representing the state's Natural Resources Defense Council—outlined their support for eminent domain law.

"Transmission lines and associated renewable energy development mean jobs—good jobs, like linemen, electricians, engineers, and construction workers—here in Montana," they write. "Investment and job growth lead to more investment and employment opportunities, producing ever more economic benefits and providing much needed tax revenue to local and state governments. Developing a clean energy economy is vitally important for Montana's future."

Golden State Gridlock

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in April giving his state the most "aggressive alternative energy mandate in the U.S.," the Huffington Post reported.

The law gives California's utilities and electricity providers nine years to ensure that a third of the state's energy comes from renewable resources.

Paradoxically, project after project to help increase the flow of green power has been stymied by special interests, including some in the environmental community.

A prime example is a $1.8 billion, 118-mile transmission line project to bring solar energy from Imperial County to customers in neighboring San Diego, the eighth largest city in the U.S. Though plans have been in the works since 2005, workers, including Diamond Bar Local 47 members, are just now breaking ground. But the project is encountering more challenges along the way.

"So far we've had to go around a lot of protected land—which has driven up the price—and right now, it's bird egg laying season," said Local 47 Business Manager Pat Lavin. "That means the foliage can't be disturbed. And it puts many constraints on constructing the line."

The project was launched with a multi-billion dollar project labor agreement giving 95 percent of the work to Local 47 members. "When we get it up and running, it's going to employ at least 350 hands for three years," said Lavin, who is also Seventh District IEC member.

The projected line is anything but straight, weaving around a state park, dipping underground for six miles and avoiding protected habitats for native wildlife like birds, turtles and mice.

"We're going to be jumping around this place trying to get the line built," Lavin said, explaining that helicopters will fly in sections of transmission towers in a fashion usually reserved for more mountainous terrain. "All of these modifications and changes are just going to spike the construction costs, and California's citizens are going to shoulder the burden."

Lavin has testified at hearings along with representatives from project developer San Diego Gas & Electric to try to encourage lawmakers to grant authority for building future sections of the line that—to date—are in legal limbo.

"When those birds' eggs hatch," he said, "we'll have work. Until then, we wait."

Greening Technology

With transmission expansion come many things: less dependence on fossil fuels, increased opportunities for growth in the wind, solar and hydroelectric industries, and reduced carbon outputs that threaten the environment.

"And there's absolutely every reason that we should enjoy those things, while at the same time promoting job growth," said Hunter, the IBEW Utility Department director.

A recent report by a group studying the national grid backs this up. The Working Group for Investment in Reliable and Economic Electric Systems—or WIRES—released findings in May that suggest grid expansion will create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

"A truly 21st century electric transmission grid represents a major potential source of job creation over and above the long-term economic and reliability benefits of a more robust grid," the authors of the report write. In their study, they estimate that transmission expansion to harvest renewable energy could add 130,000 to a quarter-million full-time jobs in the U.S., and as many as 50,000 careers in Canada annually.

All this, Hunter said, is a graspable reality for the thousands of union members eager for work in the growing green sector.

"But we need to keep the pressure on lawmakers to support eminent domain to ensure these projects get from the drawing board to completion—so the cleaner energy generation of the future goes hand-in-hand with well-paying jobs," he said.

More than 400 IBEW members helped construct the massive Arrowhead-Weston transmission line, which connects energy markets in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba.

Photo © American Transmission Co. All rights reserved.