Credit: PermaCity Solar
IBEW Local 11 members, working with signatory contractor CSI Electric, recently completed work on a 2.21 megawatt solar panel installation on the South Hall roof of the Los Angeles Convention Center.  

The stars of Hollywood shine brightly in Los Angeles, but it is the city's world-famous sunshine that has catapulted the City of Angels atop the list of America's most solar-friendly cities.

That's good news for IBEW electricians, who have embraced the solar boom and its opportunities for steady, abundant work as Southern California works to harness the sun's energy.

"Our members have played a central role in helping L.A. rise to the top of U.S. cities embracing solar energy," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "Solar construction continues to be a huge source of new work for our members in Southern California and all across North America, and we're proud to be on the leading edge of the clean energy revolution."

According to a new report from the Environment America Research and Policy Center, Los Angeles now has the most installed solar power of any city in U.S. And part of what pushed it to the No. 1 spot was an IBEW-installed 2.21-megawatt solar installation on the rooftop of the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The most powerful solar roof in the U.S. to date was installed by dozens of IBEW Local 11 members atop of a warehouse and distribution center near the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro.

It took about six months for IBEW members, working for signatory contractor CSI Electric, to affix the array's more than 6,000 panels to the top of the center's South Hall. The center is almost always in use, so a major challenge was coordinating the installation to work around the various events taking place inside with minimum disruption.

The installation is expected to cover about 17 percent of the convention center's annual energy needs — about 3.4 million kilowatt hours per year.

"Every investment we make in solar is an investment in the health and well-being of Angelenos today and for years to come," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in an April press release.

The "Shining Cities 2018" report found that Los Angeles has 349.3 total megawatts of installed solar, enough to power an estimated 82,500 homes.

The nearby Westmont project, completed last summer near the Port of Los Angeles, found dozens of IBEW members with signatory contractor Baker Electric Solar working alongside union roofers and carpenters to install nearly 50,000 photovoltaic panels atop a cluster of distribution center warehouses on Westmont Drive in the San Pedro community. Completed, the array covers an area roughly the size of 50 football fields.

Westmont produces a daily average of 16.4 megawatts — enough to power around 5,000 homes — making it the most powerful solar roof in the world.

IBEW members and officials worked closely with PermaCity Solar to ensure the success of both projects.

"PermaCity is what in the solar industry is called an integrator. They perform a different role than a traditional contractor or developer," said Los Angeles Local 11 Business Manager Marvin Kropke. "They do the marketing, bring together customers, arrange financing, hire the contractors and manage the project from conception to completion."

The company had been relying on nonunion companies for solar installations, Kropke said, but that began to change a few years ago after Local 11 business agents Pat Stewart and Kevin Norton introduced themselves to CEO Jonathan Port at a building trades conference.

"We told Jonathan about how valuable IBEW's help could be as his company tries to push projects through the city of Los Angeles," Stewart said.

"We try to be value-added," Kropke said. "When you look at getting your project approved, we can turn out 1,500 people to a council meeting for support. And on projects big and small, IBEW electricians make sure our signatory contractors deliver top results on time and budget."

PermaCity worked with Local 11 on a couple of pilot projects first, Norton said. "We developed a really good working relationship and signed up three or four contractors."

IBEW connected PermaCity with the right companies and the right contact people, Kropke said. "So, it's not just a one-way relationship. It's nice to work with people like that."

Port was pleased with IBEW's work on the massive Westmont project in particular.

"I think IBEW did a fantastic job of making sure there was labor for the job," Port said in an interview with enerG Magazine. "It was good to have their support."

Priorities aligned when PermaCity chose to put a special emphasis on hiring military veterans, something Kropke and Local 11 have focused on for years.

"We're always happy when contractors share our commitment to America's veterans," said Kropke, an Army veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. "We get good people who come trained with good work habits."

Local 11 has a public goal of having half of incoming apprentices each year be former members of the armed forces. The recruitment effort is not just important to Kropke but also to Local 11's members, who have wholeheartedly embraced the effort.

"There are thousands of veterans coming back from service," Port told enerG Magazine, "and there are a lot of people displaced in the way the American economy is changing. Renewable energy is one of the larger drivers of jobs making up for that change."

"We try to be good members of our communities, because after all, our members live here," Kropke said. "We want to be good neighbors, and we want to make sure we're taking care of the people who volunteered to protect us around the world."

With assistance from Local 11 and the Los Angeles chapters of the roofers' and carpenters' unions, more than four dozen veterans found work on the Westmont project.

The expansion of solar adds much-needed capacity to the region's electrical grid, but, longer-term, it also will require substantial upgrades to the region's electrical infrastructure in the form of batteries and smart sensors to help manage the sometimes-irregular flow of electricity. Both the build out and grid retrofits translate into expanded job opportunities for IBEW members.

At present, solar is the fastest-growing power generation technology. As we reported in December's Electrical Worker, more than 21.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar generating capacity existed across the United States in December 2016, a massive 55 percent increase from the year before.

Job growth has been strong in the renewable energy sector, too. The U.S. Department of Energy reported a 25 percent increase in the solar workforce in 2016, and the Solar Foundation reported that more than a quarter-million people worked in solar industries last year.

"More of that should be IBEW work," Stephenson said. "We have to continue to organize like hell to make sure IBEW members are among the beneficiaries of this explosion of solar generation all over North America."

In Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power reported that, in 2016, solar was responsible for about 5 percent of the city's power generation. Natural gas led with 34 percent, and coal and nuclear accounted for 19 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

Photovoltaic solar panels work best in vast open areas that get a great deal of sunlight. It helps that Los Angeles averages around 300 sunny days each year, but solar has provided IBEW members with long-term employment opportunities all over sunny Southern California, along the coast from Silicon Valley to San Diego and eastward to the wide open, high desert areas.

"Lots of companies and municipalities are racing to capture the power of the sun, and to do it right, they will need a workforce that can build the necessary infrastructure," Stephenson said. "We continue to advocate for strong, reliable baseload power generation like carbon-free nuclear and coal and gas, but renewables are an important part of the mix, and we're committed to be a part of their growth.

"When companies or cities are looking to expand their solar or wind generation capacity, we know they'll continue to look to members of the IBEW, who are the best-trained, safest and most professional electricians in the world."