Who gets to train the next generation of solar workers is a point of contention between labor unions and companies that build solar farms. Dennis Schroeder/NREL
If the Biden administration ends up creating solar jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans, who will train the workers?
What might at first seem an inconsequential question has become a Washington power struggle with consequences for President Biden’s energy agenda and job creation across rural America.
On one side are most of the companies that build rooftop solar and big solar farms. They are poised to create hundreds of thousands of jobs but have for the most part shunned union labor. On the other side are labor unions, which have Biden’s promise that tomorrow’s clean energy jobs belong to them.
President Biden’s push for clean energy comes with a caveat: The jobs should be union. How will a new industry come to terms with the labor movement? Click here to read the report.
The high-stakes conflict is playing out in Congress as it fleshes out Biden’s plan to spend $100 billion to create a zero-carbon grid by 2035.
Many avenues exist for unions to make inroads into solar (Energywire, March 17). One that’s easy to overlook is training requirements. To get federal funding, will solar projects have to hire union apprentices?
That detail will influence whether the solar industry continues as the lean, fast-moving force it has always been or evolves into a more slow-moving — but better-paying — bastion of union labor.
“A solar company says, ‘We don’t want to pay what a unionized electrician gets paid,'” said David Foster, who worked as a jobs adviser in the Obama White House. “‘We don’t think they need to be paid that much, and they don’t need to know that much.'”
But the political winds have changed, and that stance is now under assault.
Biden and his surrogates rarely utter the phrase “clean energy” without also mentioning “good-paying union jobs.” With the focus on a recovery “from the bottom up and the middle out,” as Biden has taken to saying, unions and the higher wages they offer are a central solution.
“It’s almost like somebody who doesn’t have a union job is ducking for cover,” said one solar industry insider.
The jobs at stake are substantial. A jobs census released last week projected the solar industry will need 400,000 positions by 2030 and 900,000 by 2035 if Biden’s plan for a zero-carbon grid becomes reality. That’s up from 231,000 at the end of last year (Energywire, May 6).
Two-thirds of those jobs are in installation and development. Congress’ influence is most likely to be felt on big, utility-scale projects, where federal dollars are more likely to be spent. But a funding package could also affect rooftop solar, where the bulk of installers work.
Most solar companies train up their workers in weeks, yielding a relatively low-skill workforce that is designed to build solar and only solar. This, they say, responds best to a changing market and leads to less expensive energy.
Union apprenticeships, by contrast, take years to turn a new recruit into a highly skilled worker. It takes longer and costs more, but prepares workers for a career beyond a solar boom.
The countryside conundrum
The results of this showdown will be felt in the rural parts of states that voted heavily for Donald Trump in the last election, like Texas, Alabama and Utah.
Solar farms consume big swaths of land where rural voters live. Many more would be built in a wide-scale transition to clean energy. Biden wants to get rural residents on board by offering them construction jobs and the promise of new careers.
But solar companies say that requiring them to go union could actually do the opposite, forcing them to train workers in the cities and export them to the hinterlands, instead of creating local jobs.
“Finding labor is already a challenge, and if you add that requirement on it, it could have unintended consequences,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group of U.S. solar firms.
How the training tango unfolds depends on how Congress crafts the specifics of Biden’s infrastructure plan.
On the more union-friendly end is the “Clean Energy for America Act,” introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chair of the powerful Finance Committee.
It requires that in order to get federal infrastructure funding, at least 15% of hours “be performed by qualified apprentices,” with some exceptions.
The Solar Energy Industries Association prefers the “Blue Collar to Green Collar Jobs Development Act,” sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), the chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy. It would fund workforce training to the tune of $100 million a year through 2025. It attaches no union or apprenticeship requirements.
A career, or a job?
The simplicity of solar power makes it a conundrum for Biden and his quest to create both clean electricity and high-quality jobs.
A utility-scale solar farm is, by the standards of energy construction, as easy as Legos. Row upon row of black photovoltaic solar panels are mounted on racks, which are mounted on steel poles. The wiring is complex, but that makes up a small portion of work hours.
Unlike creating a natural gas plant, workers don’t need the skills to join pipes or build furnaces. Unlike a wind farm, there aren’t many moving parts or great heights.
What level of training new hires should get for such rudimentary work is at the core of the conflict.
Many solar firms teach exactly the skills required for the job and no more, to get workers in the field full-time as soon as possible.
For example, McCarthy Building Companies Inc., a major solar contractor, hires local if it can. It brings in new recruits, including retail and restaurant workers with no experience in construction. The goal is “to make them effective within a day and fully productive in about a week,” according to a testimonial from a jobs survey.
“We’ll have nine to 10 months to build a solar project, and we need a few hundred people to be trained very quickly,” said Scott Canada, the company’s vice president for renewable energy.
About a third of solar companies have formal programs to train workers. Others rely on training organizations, such as the nonprofit Solar Energy International or a private company like ReVision Energy. The bigger the company, the more likely it is to do the training itself.
Swinerton, a San Francisco-based construction giant with a renewable energy division, is a case in point. On a large project, a crew of 30 experienced staffers trains 300 recruits in a tight choreography.
One crew is trained to pile drive holes for the steel foundations. After working its way across a farm, it is time for those same people to learn how to assemble the racks. Some of those will then learn to emplace the solar panels. It is “a fluid cross-training of teams,” according to George Hershman, the president of Swinerton Renewable Energy.
The good people can quickly work their way up.
“We train people to build solar plants and make a career in building solar plants,” Hershman said.
The slow boat
The union approach to training couldn’t be more different.
At its core is the apprenticeship. Modeled on craft guilds that predated the Industrial Revolution, they combine classroom study with work in the field under the tutelage of an experienced hand, known as a journeyman. “Learn as you earn” is the watchword. The pay, modest at first, rises the more work hours gained.
And a lot of hours it is.
An apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW, is five years long. The training regimen for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers — the Ironworkers union — is three to four years. An apprenticeship for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or Laborers union, which encompasses the lowest-skill jobs on a construction site, calls for 4,000 hours of on-the-job training.
“You might lose some efficiency in that,” said Phil Jordan, a vice president for BW Research, which studies energy jobs. “But what you gain is highly supervised employees who know what they’re doing.”
And unions are quick to add that it makes the worker more employable if they move to a new region or a new kind of construction job.
A union-trained worker “can go from California to Texas to Georgia and every employer knows what skills they have,” said Brad Markell, the executive director of the Industrial Union Council at the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union federation. “It’s good for the labor market.”
Unions’ apprenticeship programs have evolved into big enterprises.
IBEW’s approach is typical. Its apprenticeships are carried out by the Electrical Training Alliance, which graduates 55,000 electricians a year.
Apprenticeships are typically funded 50/50 by unions and the companies for which they work. In the Electrical Training Alliance’s case, its annual budget is pulled from contributions from union members’ paychecks and from the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), which represents thousands of construction companies.
The alliance has 276 joint apprenticeship training committees nationwide, each with its own offices with classrooms and lab space. Solar photovoltaics is an add-on course that is offered at 41 centers.
Such a drastically different training system also puts the solar worksite on a different rhythm and pace.
California is where unions have the greatest dominion over solar projects. There, an elaborate system revolves around what are known as project labor agreements (PLAs). These agreements set the terms for how labor unions and a project developer work together on a construction project. PLAs are common in union-friendly states on the West Coast and in the Northeast.
Swinerton, the construction company that likes to put the same worker in several roles, uses union labor through PLAs in California because it can’t get a permit from local officials unless it does.
Rather than advertising for jobs on its own, it puts a call to the local union halls. Those requests summon workers from five labor unions: IBEW, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, the Laborers and the Ironworkers.
The job duties, dictated by the PLA, are fixed. The operating engineers move equipment around; the laborers drive the posts; the ironworkers install the horizontal racking; the carpenters do anything involving gears, motors and housing; and the electricians do the wiring.
“It’s not as efficient, and not as cost-effective,” said Hershman, the head of Swinerton’s renewable energy division. But, he added, “It really works well.”
For all that training, some solar companies find that apprenticeship programs don’t quite go the distance.
“The union training programs are among the best,” said Barry Cinnamon, the founder of Spice Solar, a rooftop solar installer in Silicon Valley that does its own worker training. “However, they focus on all electrical work. They go very broad but don’t go very deep.”
Union workers generally stay in their jobs longer. That’s an attribute that draws some solar firms to embrace union training and ward off the high turnover that plagues the industry.
“When they join the union, they’re joining as a career. They have decided this is that they want to do, which means in a few months they won’t change their mind and decide to do something else,” said Aur Beck, the owner of AES Solar, an Illinois solar builder.
Texas isn’t California
As Congress figures out how to fund a huge investment in solar energy, it’s an open question whether requiring union training would grow local jobs or kill them.
Unions are firm believers that they can train up workers and create jobs, at scale and nationwide, if solar builders would only ask.
“We have 50,000 apprentices today,” said Todd Stafford, the executive director of the Electrical Training Alliance. “We could have 100,000 tomorrow, no problem.”
The solar industry isn’t so sure.
Hershman points to the state of Texas. Its uptake of solar is growing so fast that it may soon rival California. But its welcoming attitude toward solar doesn’t extend to unions.
Texas is one of many “right-to-work” states, where workers in a unionized workplace aren’t required to belong to the union.
Democrats’ divisions haunt clean electricity standard
Scott Waldman, E&E News reporterPublished: Friday, May 28, 2021
There’s disagreement among Democratic groups about what kinds of energy should be included in a clean electricity standard. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
As President Biden’s climate-focused infrastructure plan lurches through tense congressional negotiations, one of his toughest battles may be how he defines clean energy.
Democrats are racing to decarbonize the electrical grid by 2035. But there is disagreement among progressive and moderate groups on the left over what path to take. It’s a division that Biden will have to bridge if he hopes to pass the centerpiece of his climate plan: a clean electricity standard.
Recognizing the importance of a CES, which has never been enacted on a federal level before, environmental groups have come to view it as the place to enact their priorities. It’s a proxy battle for the larger tensions in Democratic politics, where the more liberal Bernie Sanders wing of the party wants bold climate promises, while the Biden wing values a more practical approach that has a better chance of winning moderate support.
Some want a future energy grid based almost entirely on renewables. Others want a broader plan centered around clean energy but inclusive of other technologies, such as nuclear power, that will speed the transition to a carbon-free grid within 15 years.
The outcome could shape the country’s energy trajectory for decades — if it passes — and define Democratic politics amid a tumultuous period of energy transitions.
Democrats and the political left can’t lose any time fighting over how to decarbonize the grid, said former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who presided over the last major climate bill. It narrowly passed the House in 2009 with bipartisan support but died in the Senate. It’s important for Congress and advocates to be open to nuclear power as part of the fuel mix, he said.
“We wouldn’t have had to do it 10 years ago, but we’re getting later and later in limiting our carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and we may have to go with nuclear as an alternative fuel,” Waxman said.
The clean electricity standard is tucked into the infrastructure package that calls for the grid to derive 80% of its power from carbon-free sources by 2030.
Some climate advocates warn that unity is needed now to prevent losing a clean electricity standard altogether.
“We have to keep our eye on the prize here, which is that the American Jobs Plan is a top priority, and we can’t let the right undermine climate action,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
If enacted, a federal clean energy standard would require the government to take aggressive action toward eliminating coal and scaling back natural gas. It would also drive states to scale up climate ambitions.
The Biden administration has been relatively quiet on the details of a clean energy standard. But the president will have to show his hand soon.
Biden wants Congress to pass an infrastructure bill this summer, before the election cycle for next year’s midterms begins in earnest. Democrats are widely expected to lose seats in the 2022 elections and potentially control of Congress. That would strip Biden of his chance, already remote, of persuading lawmakers to pass sweeping climate legislation.
Over the last month, a rift has opened among environmental groups over how the administration should define clean energy. On one side, some advocates shaping the policy argue that nuclear power and carbon capture should play a role in the race to decarbonize the grid. Other groups want the administration to reject any plan that is seen as preserving fossil fuels. They also want to block new nuclear projects.
Earlier this month, hundreds of climate activist groups, including 350.org, Oil Change International and Greenpeace, signed a letter asking Congress to reject the administration’s proposed clean electricity standard because it would advance carbon capture — and offer a lifeline to the natural gas industry. The groups also questioned the environmental costs of nuclear power and biomass, and they pointed to environmental justice issues around those facilities.
Instead, they asked Congress to pursue a renewable energy standard, which would forbid most sources of power apart from wind, solar and hydro.
Many of the groups that signed the letter have not been working with White House officials to craft Biden’s climate policy. Major environmental groups that are favored by the administration — like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sunrise Movement — largely ignored the letter. Many of those groups have helped shape Biden’s climate policy since the election and have alumni working in the administration.
Others said a clean electricity standard would augment the trajectory of today’s energy market, where fossil fuels are being displaced because the price of renewable energy continues to drop. That would achieve the goals many on the left have long sought, even if nuclear power and carbon capture are included in Biden’s plan.
“CES will drive wind and solar, period,” said Stokes, who is an adviser to Evergreen Action, which has ties to the Biden administration. “And it will stop new gas, period. I get all the freaking out and concerns, but how are you going to build a CCS plant in the next decade? There are none in the power sector. How are you going to build a new nuclear plant? It takes 9 ½ years to build one. We’re talking about a sprint to 2030 here.”
But others say Biden’s climate policy doesn’t go far enough to displace fossil fuels. And they worry that it could erode during negotiations.
The administration is likely to weaken its climate goals to get buy-in from moderate Democrats and some Republicans in the coming weeks, said Collin Rees, a senior campaigner for Oil Change International, who signed the letter urging Congress to reject the CES.
“It sets us up in a better position to have that fight later,” he said. “I think if we already give it away, if we have a standard that already includes a bunch of fracked gas or something, we might go to the Senate and end up with something that includes coal. So I think part of it is a political negotiation piece.”
Still, Rees disputed the notion that different green groups are locked in a pitched battle. He said they’re mostly on the same page and expects that differences can be worked out.
There is a long history in Washington to define clean energy, said Sasha Mackler, director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The debate around what to include in the CES is louder around the political edges, where the progressive left is amplified, he said, but the group at the center of the debate is bigger. Most important is to define clean energy in a way that can actually be enacted into law, he said.
“The legislative path is hard, and the broader you go and the more inclusive one is from a technological standpoint, the higher the likelihood you’re going to get a package that can make it through Congress,” Mackler said.
Other climate policy advocates see a place for the concerns of both sides.
Keeping existing nuclear facilities online makes sense because it would make it easier and cheaper to decarbonize the economy by 2050, said Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation, another group with the ear of the White House.
The goals for wind and solar require a massive build-out, and nuclear would reduce the overall share that’s needed soon, he said. Even carbon capture can be effective in the near term if it addresses the environmental justice concerns of the communities that live near the facilities, he said.
“I think that a CES should allow all clean electricity generation, so that would include nuclear; that would include hydro, geothermal, the traditional renewables,” he said. “I think a CES that does include fossil fuel plants with carbon capture does need to address the economic and well-being concerns that allowing those plants to stay online can raise.”
The margin for passage in Congress is so tight that a couple of votes might doom the plan or pass it. Moderates on both sides have been noncommittal. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has said his support will depend on “the details” of the CES. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he was “looking at” the CES but favored carbon pricing.
While the White House has been tight-lipped on specifics, climate adviser Gina McCarthy appeared to cast some doubt on using carbon capture to meet the standard’s goal. Carbon capture, she said recently, would reduce and manage greenhouse gas emissions, but it would do “very little to reduce the other pollutants that are disproportionately hurting environmental justice communities.”
She also said that the utility sector is on board with the CES and is a key ally in the talks.
“When I talk to the folks in the utility world, they see a clean energy standard as being the most direct signal to them and the most flexible approach that will allow them to get there, where they need to go. So I think it’s one of the best strategies that we can use moving forward,” McCarthy said.
Fighting over whether to include energy sources such as nuclear was a luxury lawmakers might have had in 2009. But they don’t now, Waxman said.
So he offered this advice.
“Keep their eyes on the ball; don’t get sidetracked by other complications and divisions,” he said of Democrats. “They have to come together and get started to make enormous progress, because we’re running out of time.”Twitter: @scottpwaldmanEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Compound Climate and Infrastructure Events: How Electrical Grid Failure Alters Heat Wave Risk
- Brian Stone Jr.*
- Evan Mallen
- Mayuri Rajput
- Carina J. Gronlund
- Ashley M. Broadbent
- E. Scott Krayenhoff
- Godfried Augenbroe
- Marie S. O’Neill
- Matei Georgescu
The potential for critical infrastructure failures during extreme weather events is rising. Major electrical grid failure or “blackout” events in the United States, those with a duration of at least 1 h and impacting 50,000 or more utility customers, increased by more than 60% over the most recent 5 year reporting period. When such blackout events coincide in time with heat wave conditions, population exposures to extreme heat both outside and within buildings can reach dangerously high levels as mechanical air conditioning systems become inoperable. Here, we combine the Weather Research and Forecasting regional climate model with an advanced building energy model to simulate building-interior temperatures in response to concurrent heat wave and blackout conditions for more than 2.8 million residents across Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; and Phoenix, Arizona. Study results find simulated compound heat wave and grid failure events of recent intensity and duration to expose between 68 and 100% of the urban population to an elevated risk of heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke.
The Texas Grid Came Close to an Even Bigger Disaster During February Freeze
Many ‘black start’ units, which are used to jolt failed electricity systems, weren’t working
Power lines in Austin, Texas. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGESBy Rebecca SmithMay 27, 2021 10:25 am ET
- 612 RESPONSES
The Texas electric grid came within five minutes of a complete collapse in mid-February. The problem could have been much worse. A little-known network designed to jolt the grid back to life wasn’t working properly.
Texas grid operators, like their counterparts all over the country, rely on standby generators called “black starts.” Their job is to rescue the grid by supplying electricity to power plants so they can restart after a grid failure—roughly akin to jump-starting a car with a dead battery.
When a freak winter storm hit Texas, nine of the 13 primary generators designed to get a downed system going again were, at times, out of commission, according to grid operators. And six of 15 secondary generators—the fail-safe for the fail-safe—had periodic trouble as well, including freeze damage and problems getting fuel. Those problems haven’t previously been reported.
If grid operators had completely lost control of the situation—they didn’t, although they came close—the spotty performance of the black start units could have left Texans without power for much longer than a few days. How long is impossible to say, though by the grid operators’ own estimate, a total collapse could have caused weeks or even months of outages.
Pat Wood III, former head of the Public Utility Commission of Texas and former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, said the poor performance of black starts in Texas stunned him. Were there an uncontrolled grid collapse, whether from extreme weather, a cyberattack, or some other cause, Mr. Wood said, they are “what keeps us from going back to the Stone Age.”
Absolute Impact 2021: Why oil and gas ‘net zero’ ambitions are not enough
Oil27 May 2021 Download the full Analyst Note
Looking for more information? Here’s everything you should need.
Companies strengthen climate policies but many keep options to increase production LONDON/NEW YORK, 27 May…READ MORE
ABSOLUTE IMPACT 2020
There is growing recognition that drastic changes to oil and gas consumption are required to meet the finite…READ MORE
“Net zero is not enough – it’s the pathway that matters. To align with the Paris Agreement, companies must commit to absolute reductions in carbon emissions from their oil and gas products, with strong interim targets and a credible implementation plan.” Said Mike Coffin, Carbon Tracker senior analyst and report author.
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Oil and gas companies are increasingly announcing new climate goals as they seek to maintain a social licence to operate.
Building on our inaugural Absolute Impact report in 2020, we provide an update to our ‘hallmarks of Paris compliance’ framework and relative ranking table of climate goals for 10 of the largest oil and gas producers.
Climate goals must reflect end use emissions
Despite various claims of “net zero”, oil and gas emissions targets are far from equal. Some targets include a full spectrum of company activities whilst other goals just cover a small minority of life cycle emissions related to the initial production process. In this analysis, we continue to call for an industry-standard approach to reporting as well as great transparency and accountability.
Companies need more than a 2050 goal; absolute reductions to 2030 are crucial
A stated goal some 30 years hence is one thing, but however ambitious it is, there is little incentive for current management to act to reduce emissions. To drive real change, it’s critical that companies have interim goals; and since our 2020 analysis, we have seen an increasing number of such goals announced.
However, for interim goals to make the desired change, they also need to be on an absolute basis, rather than just measuring emissions intensity reductions.
For company goals to be credible, they should not rely heavily on unproven technologies
All ten companies in our analysis have announced plans to use nascent technologies to reduce emissions, including both carbon-capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and negative emissions technologies (NETs) to reduce or offset emissions.
- Corporate climate goals in the oil and gas industry must link to finite limits that the energy transition places on current business models.
- We provide a relative ranking of goals for ten of the largest oil and gas producers (7 majors plus Equinor, Occidental and Repsol), building on our 2020 ranking in Absolute Impact.
- Net zero goals are not in themselves sufficient – it’s the pathway to net zero emissions, and the resulting cumulative emissions, that matters in determining the warming outcome for the planet.
- We refine our “hallmarks of Paris compliance” to reflect the importance of 2030 emissions reductions on an absolute basis. To link to the global carbon budget, climate goals must include end-use emissions (scope 3) with interim absolute reductions covering companies’ global activities on an equity-share basis. We assess the companies’ emissions goals against these criteria.
- An intensity approach fails to link to finite climate limits, particularly for those goals that cover all-energy sales, potentially masking production increases.
- We see a three-tier approach to corporate ambitions – similar to our 2020 ranking – with some movements between tiers:
- Eni top our rankings, with absolute emissions reductions covering all activities including scope 3 emissions. Total and bp also fall within this band albeit with shortcomings to their goals, in particular the incomplete coverage of activities.
- Shell, Equinor, Repsol and Occidental include scope 3 emissions, but set interim targets on an intensity basis.
- ConocoPhillips, Chevron and ExxonMobil only have goals covering operational emissions (scope 1 and 2).
- Occidental is the first large North American company to set a target covering scope 3 emissions; however, a clear Atlantic divide remains.
- ExxonMobil remains firmly at the foot of our rankings. Its new climate goal covers only Upstream operational emissions, with a 15-20% reduction to 2050.
- Company goals are heavily reliant on a range of unproven technologies to mitigate emissions, impacting their credibility. We give an overview of these, decoding the alphabet soup of CCUS, CDR, NETs, NBS, and their impact in reducing atmospheric CO2
- We continue to call for an industry-standard approach to reporting. Nearly every company ambition or target is framed differently, with varying calculation methodologies and exclusions.
- Accountability and transparency is critical for emissions mitigations, both to avoid double-counting and to ensure that “offsets” have the intended effect.