The IBEW recently saved the day for a utility-scale solar project in Ohio, just one of the scores of such projects being planned for rural communities throughout the state.
Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user UDExtension

When the developers of a large solar farm in Ohio needed help getting a nonunion project finished, they turned to IBEW members from Cincinnati, where Local 212 stood ready to pick up the slack.

“An abundance of residential and utility-scale solar work is coming to our entire area,” said International Vice President Gina Cooper, whose Fourth District covers Ohio plus the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. “Our business managers and international representatives are going all out to capture as much of it as they can, but it’s always a compliment to our members when someone comes to us directly to do the work.”

The IBEW worked with Open Road Renewables, which developed this project and then sold it to Innergex Renewable Energy for construction and operation. Despite ORR’s support for the IBEW, Innergex chose a nonunion shop to build the project and, in March 2020, broke ground on a 1,350-acre, 200-megawatt solar farm called Hillcrest, near Mt. Orab, about an hour’s drive east of Cincinnati.

Innergex is among the many solar energy development companies that have come to Ohio to take advantage of the state’s skilled workforce and its “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT, program, a special taxing arrangement enacted more than 10 years ago by the state’s Legislature. PILOT creates a steady stream of revenue from these projects that flows to local communities, requires a local workforce and brings certainty to developer and community alike.

“PILOT has helped spur this explosion in renewable energy interest,” said Fourth District International Representative Steve Crum. The arrangement was developed with an eye toward granting localities stability and confidence when calculating tax revenues from solar and wind installations, he said.

“For projects like Hillcrest Solar, developers expect to contribute $7,000 to $9,000 per megawatt directly back into local communities,” he said. PILOT also gives developers certainty as it provides an alternative to traditional, and often fluctuating, tax rates. Once Hillcrest is operational, it could send an estimated $60 million into Brown County localities over the life of the facility, thanks to PILOT.

But developers and communities can’t claim any of PILOT’s financial advantages unless developers can first guarantee that at least 80% of workers on a given project officially reside in Ohio. This is where Deltro, the nonunion company Innergex contracted to work at Hillcrest, ran into trouble, said Local 212 Business Manager Rick Fischer.

“They weren’t meeting their marks,” said Fischer, whose jurisdiction includes the Hillcrest site. So, Deltro asked Innergex to seek a residency waiver from the state, he said. Innergex countered that Deltro should instead ask for help from Ohio-based IBEW signatory contractor ESI Electrical, with whom Innergex had worked on other projects.

Naturally, ESI and its IBEW electricians from Local 212 were more than capable of assisting Innergex and Deltro to get the job done, Crum said. “Working together, we found a solution and helped them meet that 80% requirement,” he said.

Not only was the IBEW asked to help get the project back on track, but the journeyman wiremen and apprentices on the job so impressed Innergex that Local 212 was able to carve out more pieces of the overall work, Fischer said.

“We’ve still got 30 members working 7-10 [shifts] on it,” he said. “I’d say we’ve done pretty well with Hillcrest.”

But the growing opportunities in this industry are at risk, with two bills pending before the Ohio Legislature that could halt such projects. If passed, these bills would allow for a local township referenda process, where a vocal opposition group could vote its disapproval of these projects, blocking their construction, even if the state’s Power Siting Board had approved a permit.

“It sometimes takes 18 months for developers to do various site and environmental studies,” Crum said, “spending millions of dollars per site to consider the effect these facilities could have on neighboring properties. It doesn’t make sense to let townships wave all that away with a vote.”

IBEW leaders agree with the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition of Ohio that energy generation is best regulated by the Ohio Power Siting Board. The union has supported efforts to keep these bills from becoming law, with Crum and other IBEW members testifying against them before Ohio House and Senate committees.

Now, Crum said, there’s less than 1,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy being generated in the state. But he cited an Ohio University study that estimated renewable energy projects currently in the queue could require 18,000 to 54,000 electricians and other construction workers and, under PILOT, deliver $3 billion to $10 billion to Buckeye State localities.

“In Ohio, there are more than 30 major solar projects in the pipeline,” Crum said — mostly utility-scale solar farms like Hillcrest that generate 50 megawatts or more, typically in rural areas hard hit by economic recessions and COVID-19. “A lot of construction work is expected to start in the next two years,” he said.

These 30-plus projects total around 6.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar power. “You can see the potential opportunities for our members,” Crum said. “We fully expect to put battery storage under existing solar farms over the next few years, too.”

Vice President Cooper said the IBEW welcomes such projects. “We have 21 locals throughout Ohio and nearby West Virginia that sponsor training centers for apprentices and journeymen to learn about power generation and transmission, energy efficiency, instrumentation and of course electrical construction,” she said. “We’re very well positioned to meet the manpower needs.”