Energy generation and power
distribution – an $880 billion a year business -- has changed more in the last 20
years than in the preceding 100, and that change is likely to accelerate in the
|West Frankfort, Ill., Local 702 members Larry and Tim Meece working on one of the final overhauls before unit #1 shutdown at the Culley Generating Station in southern Indiana.
Photo by Elizabeth Weyer
It amounts to a quiet revolution in the industry that provides jobs for nearly two-thirds of the IBEW’s members.
How and where we generate power is changing. When we use it is shifting. The grid itself is transforming from pipelines of electrons to supercomputers with millions of sensors and controllers that IBEW members will install and service and utilities will wield like a conductor of a symphony.
For the nearly 400,000 IBEW members who work in generation, transmission, distribution, construction and rail, those changes will have a dramatic impact. Job responsibilities will change. Some traditional jobs will disappear while entirely new ones will arise, often in other places.
The demand for workers who can light up the nation has never been higher-- but there are no guarantees that the new jobs will continue to be good jobs.
“The IBEW will look different in 20 years,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “There are momentous changes coming to some of the best blue-collar jobs in North America. The first step in meeting the needs of a changing world and providing an honorable living for the men and women who build and maintain it is understanding the change that is already here.”
The Trends Driving the Future of the Electric Industry
|The 1,000-MW Coffeen Power Station -- here worked on by Decatur, Ill., Local 146 member Greg Mueller – has survived by upgrading environmental controls at a cost of nearly $1bn, making it one of the cleanest coal plants in the Midwest, but also one of the most expensive to run. Its future, like many other baseload generators, is uncertain.
Photo by Curt Richardson
Since Thomas Edison brought the Pearl Street power grid online in Manhattan in 1882, the model for how we generate power and get it to customers has been remarkably resilient.
“If one of the founding members of the IBEW could get in time machine and travel to the year 2000, they would have found a recognizable version of what they were building,” said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston. “A lot bigger and more complex, but recognizable.”
Until recently, power has been generated in massive, always-on powerhouses burning coal close to major load centers like factories and cities, with help from dams and nuclear and natural gas plants meeting variations in demand. The grid grew, but it was still owned by utilities that also owned the powerhouses and each grid was only loosely connected to any other, if at all.
Deregulation tore down the utilities’ grip on generation as well as distribution in the late 1990s. Today, the fuel mix is shifting away from coal and nuclear to natural gas and renewables.
Instead of a coal plant outside town, solar panels are as close as the roof and wind turbines can be hundreds of miles away.
Variable, often distributed renewable generation makes new demands on the grid. This advanced infrastructure will cost tens of billions of dollars every year, and much of it could flow through the hands of IBEW members. But, as the coal industry already knows, there will be painful disruptions as well.
Now, for the first time since the 1800s, demand for power in North America has been flat and it is not expected to grow much in the foreseeable future. Total demand for power in the U.S. is below 2002 levels and the Energy Information Agency expects it will grow 5 percent by 2040. Per capita use is also flat.
For decades, economic growth and demand for electricity have risen in lockstep. In the last decade, that link has broken.
For the last 100 years, utilities have grown ever larger as demand for power has grown. Because of rooftop solar and energy efficiency, as well as the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs, that era may be over.
“With LEDs, for example, you are replacing a 100-watt lightbulb with something that draws only 15 watts,” said Director of Business Development Ray Kasmark. “Multiply that by every office building, factory and house.”
Other forces driving change in the electrical power industry include market prices, changes in global demand for fuels as well as federal and state regulations.
“Generation and distribution go hand in hand and they are changing 180 degrees,” Kasmark said. “You used to build powerhouses near population centers or near water, or both, and brought coal to them. Now we build wind and solar where the resources are and deliver the electricity.”
Coal in Retreat
In April, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry directed his staff to find out why 531 coal generating units representing approximately 59 gigawatts of generation capacity retired from the U.S. generation fleet between 2002 and 2016. An additional 28 gigawatts are scheduled to close by 2025, according to the Energy Information Agency.
Most of the coal-fired power plants being closed today were built in the post-WWII era, before the Clean Air Act passed in 1970. Smaller than more modern coal powerhouses, with few of their environmental safeguards, the assumption was that they were being retired rather than upgraded to meet new regulations.
The expectation was that the report would blame -- as President Trump has-- environmental regulations like the 2014 Clean Power Plan that sought to limit fossil fuel emissions.
But the report found the largest contributor to the closure of coal powerhouses was not increased regulation but an inability to compete against natural gas. Since 2007, the cost per BTU – a measure of energy-- of natural gas has fallen nearly 60 percent; the cost of coal per BTU has risen 20 percent.
The result is a 38-percent decline in coal use since 2007 to its lowest level in four decades. During the same period, natural gas consumption more than doubled. Last year, for the first time in U.S. history, natural gas produced more energy than coal.
“Some of these coal powerhouses will run for another 30 or 40 years but we will not be building any more,” said Construction and Maintenance Department Director Jim Ross. “And we’re seeing a steep drop in maintenance: fewer outages and always shorter. They are driving them into the ground. Why maintain them?”
Ross said there has been a steady decline in work under the national maintenance agreement for power generation work.
In October, the Trump administration announced its intention to repeal the CPP, although that will take months and will likely be met with substantial legal challenges. Even if it is successful, a 2016 study from Columbia University concluded “If natural gas prices remain at or near current levels, or renewable costs fall more quickly than expected, U.S. coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.”
Across the IBEW, the disappearance of coal has been devastating.
Every month new closures are announced, and not just in the eastern coal belt in Appalachia. In October, Texas-based Vistra Energy confirmed the closure of three coal powerhouses in 2018.
“We’ve seen coal plants with 200 members converted into natural gas plants with 25 workers, full stop, but we’ve never had to close a local until now,” said Seventh District International Vice President Steven Speer. “Now we are.”
Rockdale Local 2078 in rural East Texas will lose all 400 of its members when the Monticello and Big Brown powerhouses are shuttered in 2018. Speer said the local is negotiating retirement, severance and extension of health benefits for as long as they can.
“This will be devastating, and not just for our members. These jobs are the foundation for entire communities,” Speer said. “There isn’t any other industry like it out there. When these jobs go, taxes to schools, to the county, to towns, will all go down and, maybe, just away.”
Nuclear is on the Ropes
The disruption of cheap natural gas, flat demand and the falling cost of renewables hasn’t been limited to the coal industry.
Nuclear power, the other baseload energy producer, has been suffering too.
Nuclear power has represented about 20 percent of total energy production for decades, and until recent years, nuclear plants have been stable and profitable once built.
|Even nuclear power is feeling the threat from natural gas and renewables., The Vermont Yankee Power Plant was one of several plants that closed because of market competition alone. Since the announcement in 2014, the workforce has been cut 90 percent.
Since the first of more than 100 commercial nuclear reactors came online in Shippingport, Pa., 60 years ago, some have retired at the end of their useful life or after accidents, but most nuclear plants stayed open and profitable.
Since 2013, however, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, Vermont Yankee in Vermont and Fort Calhoun in Nebraska did not.
For example, 170 members of Montpelier, Vt., Local 300 worked at the 620-megawatt Vermont Yankee plant when it was running at full capacity. Only 13 are left.
“Only 30 members will have retired when the plant is ready for decommissioning,” said Local 300 Business Manager Jeffrey Wimette. “About 90 have moved to other generation jobs, but none of those were in Vermont. The other 37 just went away and when the fuel is removed and stabilized, the last 13 will be gone too.”
In its 2017 Annual Energy Outlook, the EIA predicted that up to 25 percent of current nuclear capacity will retire by 2050 and will not be replaced. Of the 15 nuclear reactors scheduled to close, 10 cited are retiring because of market conditions alone.
More than 15,000 IBEW utility members work full time in nuclear plants and thousands more construction and maintenance electricians work during outages.
Nothing close to that number are required on solar, wind or natural gas installations.
Colston pointed to recent legislative victories in Illinois and New York, where state governments introduced clean energy standards that more accurately reflect the value of carbon-free baseload power. Seven nuclear reactors that were scheduled to close in those states will stay open.
Similar laws are under consideration in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Absent any government protection for baseload, the market will drive it out. We are betting the future of our economy on unproven technology. But I believe that message is getting out,” Colston said.
Gas is Booming
|The biggest winner, so far, in the generation revolution has been natural gas and power plants that use it to run turbines like the one next to Green Bay, Wisc., Local 158 member John Hoogland at the Cambridge, Wisc. Peaker Power Plant.
Photo by Fred Bellman
One clear winner has emerged in the last 10 years. Hydraulic fracturing has transformed the U.S. into an energy superpower. Fracking shifted natural gas powerplants from high-cost, occasional producers that only ran when demand was at its peak into the new backbone of the generation fleet.
Unfortunately for utility workers, natural gas plants require significantly fewer workers to run and maintain than coal or nuclear.
Colston’s home local, Louisville, Ky., Local 2100, for example, has not only seen coal plants close, at least in one case the coal powerhouse was converted to combined-cycle natural gas.
“We went from about 120 members working there to less than 25,” Colston said. “The reality is new energy generation is capital intensive, but has low manpower requirements for both utility and maintenance workers.”
However, new plants in new locations are translating into significant increases in demand for line work. New plants need transformers and a connection to the grid. In many cases, developers are putting gas peaker plants closer to customers, but they are finding distribution grids that are already at or near capacity.
“The owners of new powerhouses want a connection now, but upgrading the grid to handle it is not going to take a few months or even years,” said International Representative Ed Mings. “We will see a lot more of that kind of work, reconnecting generation not just across the country, but locally.”
Part Two of this series will explore how the change in the electrical generation industry is transforming distribution and transmission.
One Megawatt Closes, Three More Open
There are potential bright spots for IBEW workers.
For every coal or nuclear powerhouse that closes, those megawatts must be replaced. And even though demand is flat, when baseload capacity is replaced with renewable energy like wind and solar, it cannot be replaced megawatt for megawatt because wind patterns and hours of sunlight are constantly changing.
Every power plant has a nameplate capacity: how much it can produce when going full out. But the reality is that no power plant produces 100 percent of its nameplate capacity 24/7, and for some generation technologies, reality falls far, far short.
Baseload power, particularly nuclear, comes closest. At the bottom are the flexible, backup “dispatchable” natural gas turbine plants that respond to demand spikes.
In between are the variable renewable energy sources. For example, solar generation is nearly 2 percent of nameplate capacity in the U.S. but only produces about 1 percent of total power.
For every megawatt of nameplate baseload capacity that closes, at least two, three or even four times that amount of solar or wind is required to replace it.
The greater the penetration of variable renewables, the more need there will be for redundant generations, Kasmark said, and the IBEW has been very competitive on grid-scale projects.
|Since it passed hydroelectric generation this year, wind turbines like the one maintained by Portland, Maine, Local 567 member Shianne Valenzuela produce more power than any other renewable.
“The value of someone who can turn a set of pliers is going up,” he said. “What keeps me up is manning the work. We’ve got 20,000 apprentices and I could put twice that many to work.”
Utility-scale solar installations, for example, grew at an average rate of 72 percent each year between 2010 and 2016, faster than any other generating technology.
For California locals including Bakersfield Local 428, Riverside Local 440 and San Bernardino Local 477, grid-scale solar has been a new gold rush.
At the depth of the recession, nearly 40 percent of Fresno Local 100 members were on the bench and even the ones who were working rarely saw 40 hours of work each week.
In the last three years, however, man-hours returned to pre-recession levels and nearly 80 percent of the work was on grid-scale solar projects.
“Solar saved this local," said former business manager Kevin Cole.
Solar is playing catch-up. It is the fastest growing generation technology, but the true renewable success story is wind power.
As of December 2016, more than 21 gigawatts of utility-scale solar generating capacity was in operation across the United States; installed wind capacity is approaching 100 GW and at the end of 2016, for the first time, surpassed that of hydroelectric power.
|Renewables like solar photovoltaics are disrupting the traditional energy generation workforce, but it is also creating jobs for tens of thousands of IBEW members like San Diego Local 569 member Cesar Chaidez.
Job growth has been strong in the renewable sector. The solar and wind workforce increased by 25 and 32 percent, respectively, in 2016, according to the DoE report.
In 2017, solar industries provide jobs for 373,000 Americans. Wind industries provided another 101,000.
The challenge for the IBEW is that many of the new jobs are lower skill, lower wage and nonunion and often hundreds, even thousands of miles away from where jobs are being lost. Coal powerhouses are, for the most part, located near population centers east of the Mississippi.
Wind installations are built where fuel is cheapest and most abundant, the Midwest.
And if a power generating company is thinking about building a solar installation, they go where sun is most plentiful, or in the case of North Carolina and Massachusetts, where state laws have been most encouraging.
“A minimum wage job spinning a 9/16-inch wrench in the desert of California is not a replacement for a middle-class job operating a coal plant in Kentucky,” Colston said.
The Promise of Clean Coal and Market Reforms
There are, Colston and Ross said, some reasons for thinking the worst outcome could be avoided. Even if the U.S. is moving away from coal, the world isn’t and there is opportunity there.
“We cannot bring coal back here. It is based on this false perception that CO2 won’t matter. It will, whether in this four years or in the next,” Colston said. “But the reality is, the growth of coal use will drop here but it is going up faster overseas. Not by much, but we have to address that.”
About half of the coal consumption in the world is in China and the International Energy Agency doesn’t forecast any significant drop in coal consumption there through 2025. At the same time, coal consumption in India and developing countries in Africa will rise, off-setting much of the drop in North America and Europe.
What we need, Colston said, is a significant investment in clean coal, capture or sequestration, modern technologies that retain coal as a fuel source but mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.
“We will not reach the reduction in CO2 emissions we need globally without some kind of clean coal, capture or sequestration and the U.S. should be leading the way,” Colston said. “It is also an enormous economic opportunity for whatever country gets this right.”
More importantly for IBEW members, he said, it could save jobs.
“We have to address the threat of global climate change. Everyone will benefit when we do,” he said. “But we should do it in a way that doesn’t put so much of the burden on so few people.”
Colston said that another potential cause for optimism are regulatory reforms to the bulk energy marketplace like those proposed by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in October.
Perry’s proposal would increase payments to baseload producers. Today, with some exceptions, the price for electricity at a given time is set by the lowest cost provider.
Because of subsidies to solar and wind, at times those producers can charge zero and still make a profit.
“The problem isn’t renewables versus baseload. The problem is that we rely on baseload generators to be there when we need them but don’t pay them enough to guarantee they won’t close,” Colston said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees deregulated energy markets, is considering changes to the pricing system in bulk power markets. Reforms could include larger payments for providing reserve capacity and other services or allowing new kinds of purchasing agreements with utilities.
“There will be many amazing new, technologies coming. They have enormous promise,” Colston said. “But the power grid is not only the most complex machine ever built, it is the most important, to our economy and our country. We can’t get this wrong.”