Big Bend power station is also a nature reserve for endangered Florida manatees who congregate in the warm water discharged into Tampa Bay after cooling the coal boilers.
Photo used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Flickr user Greenwich Photography.  

The first grid-scale solar installation built by Tampa Electric Co. was supposed to be the opening chapter of the company’s green energy future. It all nearly fell apart because of one of the oldest stories there is: shoddy work by nonunion contractors. 

IBEW members were crucial to installing the 24-megawatt solar system at Tampa Electric's Big Bend power station: Tampa Local 915 members did all the electrical work and when the nonunion mechanical contractor fell behind, David Mulkey, a retired member of Chattanooga, Tenn., Local 721, got the project back on track.

“When I got there, it was a zoo,” said David Mulkey, a retired member of Chattanooga, Tenn., Local 721 who was called out of retirement by TECO to rescue the project. “A four-month project was about two months behind.”

The 24-megawatt system was to be built at TECO’s iconic Big Bend generation station. The nearly 50-year old power station has one natural gas and four coal burners. TECO plans to only build solar and natural gas in the future and Big Bend was its first step.

It was the obvious place to launch a green future because Big Bend is an industrial site, a nature reserve and a tourist beacon.

Since the fourth coal unit came online in the mid-‘80s, hundreds of endangered Florida manatees --slow-moving herbivores that look like tuskless walruses-- congregate in the discharge canal each winter, drawn by the warmed water flowing out of the plant and into Tampa Bay.

It is such a valuable resource for the endangered manatee that the canals have been a federal sanctuary since 2002. And with hundreds of the charismatic animals bobbing in the shadow of the smoke stacks come millions of visitors.

The electrical contractor for the job was Sachs Electric, a St. Louis-based signatory contractor with a national network of partners. But General Superintendent John McAtee said Sachs had not worked in Tampa since the ‘80s and needed a local partner to staff the job.

Signatory contractors have an easy way to find trustworthy partners: call the business manager of the nearest local.

“I’ve done that many, many times,” McAtee said.

Picking up the phone was Tampa Local 915 Business Manager Randall King. It’s a conversation King has also had many times.

“It doesn’t always come to fruition, but I am always on the phone match-making contractors,” King said. 

Hundreds of the slow moving herbivorous mammals call Big Bend home in the winter.

King called Tampa-based Electro Design Engineering. It had never done a solar project, but it worked on TECO properties already so the utility knew them.  

King arranged a meeting between and a partnership was made.

The result was four months of work for 85 members, more than a million man-hours.

“That was a productive lunch,” King said.

But the project quickly went sideways. The solar arrays required significant coordination between the Texas-based nonunion mechanical crews and the union electrical workers. But the nonunion contractor was understaffed and incompetent. They were late and often had to repeat work.

“It was falling apart,” McAtee said. “Modules were broken and collapsing sometimes after we had worked on them.”

Sachs had to tear up their work plan more than once.

Then Mulkey arrived. For years he was the Tennessee Valley Authority’s emergency construction manager, brought in when money was burning and the finish date was a mirage on the horizon that never came closer. It should have been a management position but Mulkey told the TVA he would never leave the IBEW.

“I made more money being an electrician than as an engineer and had to put up with less crap than if I’d gone into management,” Mulkey said. “I had the best of all worlds.”

After retiring from TVA, he worked as an independent consultant. Then he retired from that, though he admits he isn’t very good at being retired yet.

TECO was watching Big Bend fail and called Mulkey. He agreed, came to Tampa, and looked around the site.

 “I was impressed with Electro Design,” he said. “But [the nonunion contractor]? You couldn’t even talk to those idiots. I’ve never seen such a circus.”

He made his home in the mechanical contractor’s office and “rode them.”

They staffed up and stopped hiring people off the street. They caught up and the project went online at the peak of the manatee peeping season in February.

Mulkey is now back in retirement.

“I hope TECO learned the lesson,” Mulkey said. “The IBEW, we had our [stuff] together.”