The world's largest combined solar and energy storage project is under construction by members of Bakersfield, Calif., Local 428.
When finished in early 2023, the Edwards Sanborn energy project will produce nearly a gigawatt DC from solar photovoltaic panels and store energy with 2,400 MWh of lithium-ion batteries. The first phases, including nearly 800 megawatts of solar generation, opened at the end of 2021.
A decade ago, nearly all renewable energy projects were generation only, and although IBEW contractors were very successful in bidding the work, large projects didn't always translate into large numbers of journey-level work. Times have changed.
The storage component not only increases construction budgets and solves some of the reliability issues of renewables, it shifts crew compositions to higher wage, higher skill jobs. On the Edwards Sanborn project, signatory contractor Mortenson is currently using 425 IBEW members and nearly 300 are journeymen or apprentices. They will install more than 110,000 lithium-ion battery modules, enough to displace more than 307,000 tons of CO2 annually.
"Those batteries are a different beast," Local 428 Business Manager Brian Holt said. "They are big, heavy, and require extensive knowledge and safety procedures."
The journeymen and apprentices will also install above- and below-ground transmission lines, a conversion station, a substation, operations and maintenance facilities, tie-in lines and connect the solar arrays.
The Construction Wireman-Panelizer classification at Local 428 will hang more than 2.5 million modules on nearly 6,000 acres split between private land near the unincorporated desert town of Sanborn and land leased from Edwards Air Force Base.
When finished, it will produce enough energy to power 260,000 homes.
"Without the CWP classification, we wouldn't have gotten this work. Now, because we have this industry locked down, the storage work is putting a significant number of journeymen wiremen and apprentices to work, and we are even going back now and installing storage on some of those solar jobs that had large numbers of CWs a decade ago," said Ninth District International Vice President John O'Rourke.
Edwards Sanborn is the largest solar-plus-storage, but it is by no means unique. At least 160GW of solar and 13GW of wind are being developed with co-located batteries, according to a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, amounting to almost 34% of solar and 6% of wind currently in the queue.
Across the U.S., nearly 40% of planned solar projects have co-located battery storage. That leaps to 70-90% in California. The No. 1 reason is the falling prices of batteries. In 2017, energy storage cost $40-70 per MWh. By 2020, it had more than halved to $20-30 per MWh.
Solar is now the source of nearly 20% of all utility power in California and growing, but it has significant flaws. The most significant is that production is highest and most efficient in the middle of the day when demand is below peak. When people return home after work, power demand rises quickly to the daily high, just as the sun sets and solar goes offline. Adding batteries lets producers hold the low value energy from the middle of the day and sell it when it is most needed, and most valuable.
Holt says the renewable-plus-storage market is transforming Kern, San Bernadino and Imperial counties, the former heart of the oil industry in California, to the heartland of the nation's carbon-free energy economy.
"We will have close to 1,000 openings in the next 12 months, 600 to 650 just on the solar projects we have permitted and let out for bid," Holt said. "We need workers."
Holt said that the CW-Panelizer classification was seen as a temporary designation when it was used for those first grid-scale solar projects in 2013. A decade later some of the same guys have been hanging panels the entire time, he said. In part of the state that has never experienced the booms the coast has, a job that pays 2-3 times minimum wage for anyone with a clean drug test and work boots is compelling.
But it's also a pretty great way for the local to find future apprentices.
"This is hard work in 110-degree heat. There's no place to hide," he said.
And some people grab their opportunity and run.
A decade ago, Thomas Barter was doing one of the worst jobs there is — wearing two Tyvek suits cleaning out petroleum storage tanks in the oil fields outside Bakersfield. Adding insult to discomfort, he was making $10 an hour.
Barter ran into Holt, long before he was even an assistant business agent, who suggested he come apply for one of the new panelizer jobs. Starting pay was $15 an hour, and within a few weeks, if you performed, you received additional pay incentives
"Some weeks it was six 10-hour days; sometimes it was seven 10s throwing panels," Barter said. "I was super grateful."
But then Barter started to watch the apprentices and the journeymen and he realized there was more that was possible.
"It was the swagger they had. The way they acted, the brotherhood. And these guys, they make a ton of money," Barter said. "I remember one time, this journeyman working on a Sunday said, 'I am making $90 an hour today.' That's cool! I wanted to do that!"
Of course, there are lots of people who make more money than he did, people on other ladders he could never dream of climbing. But this was different.
"I could reach this bottom rung from where I was," he said.
He hadn't been in school for years, but after his 12-hour days, he started doing algebra again. He did it by hand, with his stepdad, without a calculator.
"No calculator was the part that blew me away. I had to re-learn long division," he said.
But he committed and was accepted into Local 428's apprenticeship program, where the first thing he did was take a pay cut. Some of the people he worked with at the time didn't want that pay cut and stayed where they were.
Today, Barter has been a journeyman inside wireman for almost four years and a foreman for nearly all of it. On the latest job he finished, he and another hand ran more than 100 workers. There, he ran into a guy he used to hang panels with. The project was an online retail fulfillment center. The guy was making minimum wage, working for a temp agency hired by the online retailer to unfold boxes.
"There is no ladder that comes out of that," he said.
When this job finishes, Barter will head to a job installing battery storage on the Rabbit Brush solar project, which the IBEW finished a few years ago.
"The past of Kern country was oil, and that's where I was. Now I am running work for the energy future. That all comes down to the chance I got through the CWP program and the chance I took," he said. "It was uncomfortable, busting my butt in 110 degrees, but to grow you have to be uncomfortable."