The Electrical Worker online
June 2021

Record-Breaking Solar Farm Brings
500 Jobs to Houston Local
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Baltimore Local 24 member Steve Eichelberger has traveled around the United States for the last four years building and maintaining solar energy farms as an area superintendent for Rosendin Electric.

The Aktina Renewable Power Project, where he's been working since last fall, is unlike anything he's done — and not just because of the size. The 4,000-acre farm southwest of Houston is the closest Eichelberger and other IBEW members have come to building a massive solar facility from start to finish.

That includes not just highly-skilled travelers like himself to get the project off the ground and rolling, but also 500 members of Houston Local 716 — where officials stepped up to provide Rosendin and its partner, Tokyo Gas America, with enough workers to install 1.4 million solar panels. They're on track to meet the goal of having the farm fully operational during the first six months of 2022.

"We get to take it from cradle to grave,'' Eichelberger said. "We make sure — and it's worked out here — that all the manpower calls are filled."

At 631 MW, the project will be the largest solar farm in the United States in terms of energy production — a distinction it is not expected to hold for long, considering larger projects are under construction, including one in north Texas near the Oklahoma border.

The farm is another sign of the growing importance of solar and underlines the IBEW's need to increase its market share in the industry. Only about 4% of solar workers in the United States are unionized, according to a report released last year by the National Association of State Energy Officials.

That's hardly ideal in the short term, but it means there's plenty of room for organizing as the industry continues its rapid growth. In Texas, solar is expected to grow even faster than the national rate after its electrical grid nearly collapsed during a crippling winter storm earlier this year.

"Solar is literally everywhere," Eichelberger said. "These jobs are getting bigger and bigger and taking more people. I can't see a pause in the near future when it comes to the growth. Hopefully, more contractors will be like Rosendin and get better when it comes to the development of these jobs."

Local 716 has long had a productive relationship with Rosendin, which is based in San Jose, Calif., but has a regional office in Austin, Texas. Assistant business managers Randy Lozano and Mark Landrum often travel there to meet with company officials.

Nearly all the Rosendin projects that Local 716 worked on in the past involved skilled journeyman wiremen, much like a traditional construction project. But Lozano said Local 716 has kept an eye on the solar market, realizing the potential it has to grow membership and secure work.

"We've been talking with [Rosendin's] renewable division for a long time, letting them know the different things we could provide them," Lozano said.

Manpower is a massive challenge. Journeyman inside wiremen like Eichelberger are needed for high-level positions like a foreman, but other opportunities for experienced electricians are limited.

Most of the jobs are out in the field installing the actual solar panels. The wages are good. They're not on the level of a wireman but quite high for an installer, most of whom have not previously worked in construction, but that work isn't easy and often comes under a hot Texas sun.

"We're finding solar is a completely different monster," Landrum said. "It's not complicated putting solar panels together. It's just a lot of hard work, every day."

So, Local 716 called in as many as possible working in alternate job classifications, which consist of members who have not completed an apprenticeship but have enough skills to work on lower-skilled electrical jobs.

That didn't supply nearly enough manpower, however, so Local 716 held job fairs at its hall and other locations throughout its jurisdiction. (The solar farm itself is located in Wharton County, more than a one-hour drive from downtown Houston.) It worked with other organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce in various communities, to get the word out that jobs were available.

The jobs filled pretty quickly. Making sure the new employees understood the responsibilities on the job and also of union membership fell to steward Ken Fikes.

Fikes has been an IBEW member since 1969, when he began his electrical apprenticeship at South Bend, Ind., Local 153, his home town. He moved to Texas nearly 20 years ago and transferred his membership to Local 716.

At 69, he was considering retirement before he got a call from Business Manager Damon Sebren, asking him to take on an important position on a high-profile job. The project has received substantial coverage from Houston-area media.

"I don't yell," Fikes said. "I don't curse or use bad words. I listen. I try to carry myself the way the good Lord would want me to carry myself."

A position at the solar farm gives those new members a chance at higher pay, substantial overtime and a brighter future, but it also means showing up on time and putting in a hard day's work.

Fikes' role is to help make that transition, which is not good just for the new members and employees, but also for Local 716's relationship with the signatory contractor.

"Where they've worked [in the past] is a lot more lax than where they work now," Fikes said. "I tell them to apply your whole body and mind and spirit into what you're doing. You can think about everything else on the way home. But when you're here, focus on the job at hand."

Thus far, the feedback from Rosendin has been positive, Sebren said.

There likely will be many more opportunities for Local 716 and other local unions across the United States to bid on projects.

More local and state governments are passing mandates to become less reliant on fossil fuels. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the solar installer will be the fastest growing job in the country over the next 10 years. Solar-generated electricity in the United States increased 24% in 2020 over the previous year and new construction on solar facilities increased 43%, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If another [solar] project comes along, we wouldn't hesitate at all to bid on it," Sebren said. "[Rosendin] has had nothing but good things say about our staff and the people out there working."



Houston Local 716 members working at the Aktina Renewable Power Project, a massive solar farm in southeast Texas scheduled to be fully operational by mid-2022.

Credit: Rosendin Electric