The U.S. Senate on April 20 passed its first comprehensive, bipartisan energy bill in nearly a decade, answering the calls of IBEW leaders who have been urging congressional action on energy policy for years.
The Energy Policy Modernization Act, say co-sponsors Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, aims to modernize the electric grid, increase investment in renewable energy and train the next generation of energy workers.
“We applaud this first step by the Senate to restore the role of making energy policy to the province of elected leaders,” said IBEW International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “For too long, we’ve relied on regulatory action by the Environmental Protection Agency and others to set short-term policies when what we’ve really needed is long-view leadership on these important issues.”
IBEW input was instrumental in the addition of provisions to the bill that provide union apprenticeship programs with access to federal grants on par with community colleges in a new training program, said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to prepare for the coming shortage of utility linemen,” Hunter said, noting a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that predicts an annual 4.8 percent growth in demand for linemen between 2015 and 2025. “That means we’ll need more than 30,000 additional linemen to be trained in the next decade.”
Stephenson praised the bill’s recognition for apprenticeship programs, saying, “The utility industry and unions like the IBEW have known for years that apprenticeship programs are vital to maintaining a steady supply of skilled energy professionals who can help our economy meet the challenges of the 21st century. This bill is preparing our country to meet the looming skilled worker gap in the energy industry.”
Before it reaches President Barack Obama’s desk, however, legislators will need to square the bill with a House version that passed last year. The prospects of a compromise are difficult to predict, especially during an election year.
For her part, Murkowski was bullish, telling the New York Times, “Most people thought we couldn’t achieve anything, but we have demonstrated that we can legislate.”
Her partner in the effort, Cantwell, told the paper, “There’s so much change going on in the energy sector now, we need to have an energy bill every year. The speed of the transition in energy now is like telecom in the ‘90s.”
“The investments we make today will benefit American taxpayers for generations to come,” Cantwell said. “This bipartisan bill is an important step for saving consumers money on energy costs, providing more options to power U.S. homes and businesses, and preparing the next generation of workers for jobs in clean energy.”