August 2011

Sun Farms Grow IBEW Employment
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The great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus said, "In the middle of everything is the sun." As hundreds of unemployed IBEW inside wiremen head toward the California-Nevada border in the Mojave Desert and to Arizona to erect some of the world's largest solar energy systems, the sun's nourishment of civilization is taking on its most immediate and practical significance.

Marc Joseph, an attorney who has handled negotiations over project labor agreements and has worked to remove obstacles to solar development for the California Building and Construction Trades, estimates that, in California alone, projects on the books will total more than 27 million man-hours of work for the trades. That's an exciting development, a break in the clouds of a prolonged construction downturn that has darkened the spirits of workers in the trades.

Living and working conditions for electricians seeking jobs in sun power are not as harsh as those endured by workers who traveled to Nevada's Black Canyon to build Hoover Dam, setting up shantytowns and tents during the last century's energy boom. But the heat, the scarcity of housing and complex design and logistics issues are substantial challenges for today's skilled hands on large-scale renewable energy projects.


Ivanpah-BrightSource Energy

At California's Ivanpah Dry Lake in the Mojave near the Nevada border, members of San Bernardino Local 477 are building a solar energy system for BrightSource Energy under a project labor agreement that will provide 4 million man-hours of work to the building trades.

The 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station lays claim to being the world's largest solar thermal power project currently under construction.

General Contractor Bechtel's 3,600-acre Ivanpah project will employ concentrated solar technology. Advanced software will enable more than 347,000 flat mirrors, called heliostats, to track the sun throughout the day to concentrate energy on boilers atop centralized solar power towers that will produce steam at temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees. The steam will be used in a conventional turbine to produce electricity.

At a groundbreaking ceremony last October, Bob Balgenorth, president of the state's Building and Construction Trades Council and former business manager of Santa Ana Local 441, thanked the Obama administration for making available $1.4 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees and placing Ivanpah on the list of 16 priority clean energy projects. He also praised the California Energy Commission for approving the project, also funded with $300 million from NRG Energy and $168 million from Google, without the lengthy delays that often stymie facility startups.

"Three years from now," said Balgenorth, "when this project is built out, it will be the largest solar thermal project in the world … Our partnership will mean unprecedented economic growth for the High Desert, which is suffering terrible unemployment." The current unemployment rate in San Bernardino County is more than 14 percent, among the highest in the state. In construction it is 35 percent.

Local 477 will provide electricians for the entire project, including the construction of onsite manufacturing plants where mirrors will be robotically assembled. Glass will be brought into one building where mounting points will be glued. Then, metal will be affixed in an adjacent building. The entire project is expected to put all unemployed Local 477 members to work and require hundreds of travelers within six months.

While the bulk of electrical work at Ivanpah will be performed by inside electricians, the construction of new transmission capacity to send solar power to high-population centers will tap the skills of outside construction members of Diamond Bar Local 47. Members of Local 47 actively lobbied the Clark County Council to open up rights-of-way for the lines. (See "A Greener Grid? Not Without Eminent Domain Laws," July, 2011 Electrical Worker).

Doug Pouch, a nine-year Local 477 member, had been laid off after working on electrical jobs for the state's prison system when he got the call to work at Ivanpah. Assigned to 10-hour shifts Mondays through Thursdays, Pouch is living with co-workers in a motel 10 miles from the job site and travels 175 miles back home to San Bernardino on Thursdays after work. When he began hooking up temporary trailers in April, temperatures at Ivanpah were in the 80s. Temperatures have since climbed into the 100s.

Bechtel's safety program includes an onsite nurse's station and daily safety meetings to guard against potential accidents and heat-related injuries. "It may sound strange," says Pouch, but Bechtel initiated a morning stretching program to prepare crews for the work day. Even though the site is spread out, says Pouch, "We work as a team."

General Foreman Rick Nelson, says "This being a ‘design and build' project, just keeping up with change orders, revisions and materials, along with covering 6,000 acres of property keeps us going nonstop from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day."

The power tower bases are 100-foot square and 10 feet deep. No conduit is smaller than four inches in diameter. "Our brothers and sisters have created some works of art in those bases," says Nelson.

With hundreds more members of the trades soon expected on the project, hotel space will get scarce. So Nelson and other electricians are finding more permanent residences in Las Vegas and commuting 37 miles to work at Ivanpah. Relocating is a stretch, but it's not unprecedented.

Local 477's jurisdiction is expansive, says Nelson. "We're a suitcase local. Many of our members were already traveling for work."

Solar Millenium

In three months, crews will break ground on Solar Millenium's farm located near Blythe, Calif., 165 miles across the desert from Ivanpah, in the Palo Verde Valley between Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Solar Millenium's project will provide 8 million man-hours of work for the building trades. Due to be completed in 2013, the project will use parabolic trough technology.

Solar Millenium expects to build four plants on the site with a total capacity of 1,000 megawatts, the equivalent of the total current solar capacity of the U.S. Local 440 Business Manager Robert Frost expects that the first call for IBEW members will be in November, with peak construction demanding hundreds of electricians and other classifications.


First Solar—Dateland

Dateland, Ariz., 320 miles southeast of Ivanpah, just north of the Mexico border, served in the 1940s as a desert training camp for troops under Gen. George Patton and, later, for service members headed to Iraq. Today, a 2,500-acre tract of land that once produced dates, citrus and cotton is home to First Solar's 290-megawatt, 4.5 million-panel photovoltaic farm. The facility will be operated by NRG and power will be sold to California utilities.

The Dateland solar facility is an oasis for members of Tucson Local 570 who have seen tightening employment over the past few years. Michigan-based Conti Electric's project is expected to employ an average of 200 electricians for 65 weeks on the first phase of the project. The signatory contractor is now negotiating with First Solar on the next phase, which could double that number during peak construction.

Davis-Bacon prevailing wages and apprentice-journeyman ratios are in effect, and demand for apprentices has outstripped Local 570's roster. Business Manager Mike Verbout has reached out to Phoenix Local 640 and Las Vegas Local 357 for apprentices.

"The biggest challenge is dealing with the elements," says Conti Vice President Matt Snyder. With afternoon heat hovering around 115 degrees, says Snyder, the temperature can climb to 130 degrees from the sun's reflection off of panels. Putting on personal protective equipment and working in the afternoon heat is punishing, not just on the body, but on productivity. Prior to the project bidding, Snyder and Verbout negotiated the addition of a night shift to enable electricians to install panels after the sun goes down. Lighting plants to safely illuminate the terrain are staged by apprentices at the end of the day shift for crews arriving in at night.

Finding suitable housing nearby for electricians and other trades is a growing problem. "Dateland is in the middle of nowhere," says Verbout. Gila Bend and Yuma, each about an hour's drive, provide the only lodging for workers.

Tony Wennerstrand, a fifth-year Local 357 apprentice, had been out of work since January when he decided to join some co-workers and travel to Dateland. While he has a photovoltaic card, required in Nevada, this is his first solar project. "Since we don't make the wages of journeymen, we pool our living and driving expenses," says Wennerstrand.

While he's hopeful that he can return to Las Vegas, Wennerstrand says, "This is a brand new market and I'm excited to be part of it." Las Vegas, he says, won't see the number of large new casino projects that have provided work in the past. Most of the casino work is in remodeling. "At least in this part of the country, renewable energy—solar and wind turbines—will be our future," says Wennerstrand.

"These large solar plants are not a fad," says Snyder, yet "we don't have a database on projects this big." It's important, says Snyder, for Conti and the IBEW to partner, aggressively pursue projects and show First Solar and others that "we can compete, set a good pace and allow union contractors to understand the work." Conti can't build all the new solar plants, says Snyder, "but we want the union to build them all."

While looking to pick up more large-scale projects, Local 570 and its signatory contractors aren't passing up smaller jobs. At Arizona Western College in Yuma, journeymen, construction electricians and construction wiremen are erecting a 5-megawatt photovoltaic array for Rosendin Electric. "Our composite crew is doing a great job," says Verbout.

Members of San Bernardino, Calif., Local 477 provide electricity to buildings and will install 347,000 mirrors at the 3,600-acre site of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border.

When completed, Ivanpah will look similar to this solar array in Israel. The smaller, flat mirrors are more efficient, simpler to manufacture, and cost less to install than parabolic mirrors used in solar troughs. Credit: BrightSource Energy

'Design-and-build' at Ivanpah is challenging for general foreman Rick Nelson and his crew.