Dozens of IBEW members in southern Ohio are set to start working not only on what is being touted as the first utility-grade solar installation farm in the Buckeye State, but also on what Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is calling the largest municipal solar array in the U.S.
The IBEW was well represented at the May 13 groundbreaking ceremony for developer Hecate Energy’s New Market solar project, with Portsmouth, Ohio, Local 575 Business Manager Dan Shirey, whose jurisdiction covers the project site about an hour east of Cincinnati, on hand to mark the start of the important new green-energy project.
“We’ll probably have 70 to 80 of our members on it at peak,” said Shirey, whose local is coordinating with signatory contractor PayneCrest Electric to staff the project. Additional operations and maintenance jobs at New Market should provide work opportunities for Local 575 members for years to come, he said.
“There’s been a history in the Midwest, and Ohio, of people taking our resources and not leaving much for us,” said Mayor Cranley during the ceremony. “We owe it to our kids and grandkids to move to a cleaner future.”
Also there to show support for the project were representatives from developer Hecate Energy, Highland County, the local Chamber of Commerce and nearby landowners.
Hecate officials said that the company chose the New Market site based in part on studies by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which considers Ohio’s southwestern region the sunniest part of the state.
When the project is finished, the developers plan to connect it to a nearby transmission line substation owned by AES Ohio, formerly Dayton Power and Light.
Solar work is relatively new for Local 575, which historically has worked mainly in industrial settings, Shirey said — for example, at the Kenworth truck assembly plant in Chillicothe.
But Shirey, who has provided public testimony in support of this and other nearby solar and wind projects, said he isn’t worried about any manpower challenges when it comes to the construction of solar farms like the New Market project.
“We’re excited to add some folks to the local,” said Shirey, noting that work is being completed on a new training facility that will help prepare future generations of electrical workers for what lies ahead for them throughout southern Ohio.
But basically, he said, electrical is electrical. “It’s not all that different in the long run from what we’ve been doing,” he said. “Solar covers a lot of space, but it’s the same types of cabling and high-voltage connections we do every day.”
New Market’s 310,000 photovoltaic panels, spanning an area roughly the size of 750 football fields, are expected to generate 203,000 megawatt-hours of energy a year, which ought to provide plenty of power to meet the needs of Cincinnati’s various municipal services.
With most of New Market’s generated power set to flow into Cincinnati Local 212’s jurisdiction, Crum noted that Local 212 Business Manager Rick Fischer was instrumental in helping Local 575 gain access to a project labor agreement, locking in guarantees that New Market will be built using union workers, contractors and developers.
The project’s estimated $125 million cost is being covered by a 20-year power-purchasing contract between Hecate and the city of Cincinnati.
Crum said that many solar energy development companies like Hecate appreciate the availability of skilled, local union electrical workers that the IBEW provides, not to mention the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program, which allows a steady revenue from such projects to get reinvested in their local communities.
In New Market’s case, that should come to about $9,000 per generated megawatt per year going to help fund local government services such as schools and first responders over the life of the project.
Weather permitting, the site should be fully operational by January.
“The New Market project sends a clear signal that the IBEW’s concerted efforts toward finding more work for current and future union members is paying off,” said Fourth District International Vice President Gina Cooper, whose jurisdiction includes Ohio as well as West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
“We’re going after every project that we can,” Crum added, noting that there are more than 30 major renewable energy projects before the Ohio Power Siting Board right now. This has kept local and district officials from the IBEW busy, Crum said, attending dozens of community- and public-input meetings.
Unfortunately, these other projects could be paused, if not outright stopped, thanks to a law that was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in July.
The law, drawn from the companion Senate Bill 52 and House Bill 118, could create additional, unnecessary hurdles for wind and solar projects throughout the state.
The law grants vocal opposition groups within townships the power to vote down or force expensive modifications on future projects, even ones that already have completed the Ohio Power Siting Board’s thorough — and expensive — project-approval process.
A 2020 study by Ohio University found that utility-scale solar projects in the state could generate nearly 55,000 construction jobs and over 600 operations and maintenance jobs. But IBEW members in Ohio are rightly concerned that the new law could force projects to move to neighboring states, taking away potential opportunities from members.
The solar community, educators, the Ohio Farm Bureau, and chambers of commerce across the state joined the IBEW to oppose the legislation, Crum said, with the union’s fight against the measures continuing during legislative committee meetings and hearings throughout the summer. Cooper also had urged all IBEW members in Ohio to call and write letters to their representatives in the Ohio Legislature to voice their opposition to the measure.
Unfortunately, SB 52 and HB 118 were approved by their respective houses in June, and the final bill was signed by Gov. DeWine on July 12. It takes effect on Oct. 11. Even so, the IBEW’s work on this important issue is far from over.
“We’re trying to keep the locals educated and turning out the membership to show up and make our voices heard,” Crum said. “We’re trying to bring balance to the conversation, talking about jobs and family-sustaining wages and benefits, with the real potential for workers to take on one job after another over years-long careers.”