Did Unions Hasten Demise of California’s Solar Thermal Power Plants?

Did Unions Hasten Demise of California’s Solar Thermal Power Plants?

Below is the first organized compilation of documents showing what appears to be an aggressive, deliberate union campaign to impede government approval of solar thermal power projects in California. (Organized documentation of extensive union interference with government approval of more traditional solar photovoltaic power projects in California will be released soon.)

These innovative proposed solar thermal projects were once celebrated as the future of electricity generation. In August 2007, BrightSource Energy submitted the first application for a solar thermal power plant – the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. At that time, the California Energy Commission was expecting dozens of applications for such power plants that could produce a total of as much as 24,000 megawatts of electricity. Visionaries saw California as the future “Saudi Arabia of solar.” (See Green Energy: Solar’s Big Boom – San Jose Mercury-News – September 26, 2007.) The Energy Commission subsequently received applications for 16 thermal solar power plants, listed below.

As of July 16, 2013, only one solar thermal project (Ivanpah) is nearing completion in its basic original form. Some projects have been cancelled; other projects have been postponed repeatedly, downgraded in size, or changed in concept from thermal to photovoltaic. Some companies proposing these projects have gone bankrupt and ownership has changed on some projects. An April 24, 2013 article in National Journal declared that California’s Dream to Be the Saudi Arabia of Solar Is Dead. It’s noteworthy that the California Energy Commission listing of “Large Solar Energy Projects” hasn’t been updated since September 14, 2012.

What role did unions have in this? Here’s a bit of background to put the compilation below in context.

Local Governments Approve Photovoltaic Solar Projects; The California Energy Commission Approves Thermal Solar Projects

Most of the solar projects proposed or under construction or now operating in California are “photovoltaic” or PV. A current is generated when sunlight hits panels. Many of these solar farms will generate less than 50 megawatts of electricity, although a 66 megawatt facility just opened near Lancaster and much larger ones are under construction.

Companies that want to build PV solar farms seek permits from local governments with jurisdiction over the land. Many of these projects are considered by planning commissions of counties with land in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern, San Luis Obispo) and in desert regions (Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial). Appeals go to the county board of supervisors.

In contrast, the “siting” of solar thermal power plants must be approved by the five-member California Energy Commission, because this state agency has jurisdiction over power plants that generate 50 megawatts or more of electricity and also use heat to produce electricity. With solar thermal power plants, mirrors concentrate sunlight on a vessel to heat a liquid inside, which creates steam, which turns a turbine to produce electricity.

A Tactic to Delay Approval and Escalate Costs for Energy Companies Seeking Permits

Before the California Energy Commission approves a project, it subjects the proposal to a rigorous environmental review process. This includes three phases: (1) data collection, (2) discovery and analysis that results in a preliminary staff assessment and final staff assessment, and (3) an evidentiary hearing and decision that results in a Presiding Member’s Proposed Decision and then final approval of a license for the project.

Any member of the public can submit written comments to the California Energy Commission during the permitting or licensing process for large power plants. But California law also allows a member of the public to apply to the California Energy Commission to become an “intervenor” and play an active, integral role in the permitting process for an individual power plant. An intervenor not only participates as an interested party, but can also provide testimony and witnesses and cross-examine other parties’ witnesses, most importantly during the pivotal “evidentiary hearing.” Information provided or obtained by the intervenor becomes part of the basis for the California Energy Commission’s final decision.

Typically lasting a year or longer, the review process is supposed to be open and transparent to the public. In order to preserve the integrity and the impartiality of the Energy Commission’s licensing process, California law prohibits any private “ex parte” communication between the power plant applicant, the Energy Commission staff, and outside intervenors. No party can communicate with decision-makers except in a public hearing or public record. No behind-doors deals or discussions are allowed.

Nevertheless, some informed observers believe the process is being abused. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, an organization called California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) was using the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo to intervene in the licensing process for natural gas-fired power plants. CURE seemed to be hindering approval of these projects until unions obtained a commitment for construction contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement as a condition of working on the project. This practice of “greenmail” was summarized in a September 6, 2004 Los Angeles Times article Struggle Over Power Plants and a September 19, 2004 Sacramento Bee article Pressure by Labor Group Alleged. The Wall Street Journal published a February 15, 2001 editorial condemning it: Power Grab.

Outside Parties Impede Approval of Thermal Solar Plants – Unions Are Prominent

As energy companies began the process of winning state approval for their proposed projects, California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) intervened in almost every case through the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo. As seen below, CURE routinely filed requests for applicants to collect large amounts of data. It objected to analysis, review, and procedures. It even filed two lawsuits to stop construction of two proposed solar thermal power plants.

It was noteworthy that CURE seemed to resolve its aggressive environmental concerns about a project when unions obtained a commitment from the energy company for contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of working on the project. This practice was reported in a June 18, 2009 New York Times article A Move to Put the Union Label on Solar Power Plants and in a February 5, 2011 Los Angeles Times article Labor Coalition’s Tactics on Renewable Energy Projects Are Criticized.

Below is a chart showing the involvement of California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) in the California Energy Commission licensing process for proposed large solar thermal power plant projects. In some cases, there is an uncanny relationship between the end of CURE involvement and a Project Labor Agreement or some sort of union deal. Notice that a Project Labor Agreement was announced in 2009 for the Ivanpah power plant.

California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) Involvement in the Sixteen Applications to the California Energy Commission for Approval of a Solar Thermal Power Plant

1. Ivanpah Solar – Solar Partners/Brightsource, in San Bernardino County (370 MW)

2. Blythe Solar Power Project – NextEra Blythe Energy Center LLC, in Riverside County (1,000 MW)

3. Victorville 2 Hybrid Power Project – City of Victorville, in City of Victorville in San Bernardino County (513 MW natural gas, 50 MW solar)

4. Beacon Solar Energy Project – Beacon Solar LLC, in Kern County (250 MW)

5. Abengoa Mojave Solar Project – Abengoa Solar Inc., in San Bernardino County (250 MW)

6. Imperial Valley Solar Project (Formerly SES Solar Two Project) – Imperial Valley Solar LLC, in Imperial County (709 MW)

7. Genesis Solar – Genesis Solar LLC / NextEra™ Energy Resources LLC, in Riverside County (250 MW)

8. Rice Solar Energy Project – Rice Solar LLC / SolarReserve LLC, in Riverside County (150 MW)

9. City of Palmdale Hybrid Gas-Solar – City of Palmdale, in City of Palmdale in Los Angeles County (520 MW natural gas, 50 MW solar)

10. Palen Solar Power Project – BrightSource Energy / Abengoa SA (former applicant Nalep Solar Project I, LLC), in Riverside County (500 MW)

11. Carrizo Energy Solar Farm – Carrizo Energy LLC, in San Luis Obispo County

12. San Joaquin Solar 1 & 2 – San Joaquin Solar LLC, in Fresno County

13. Ridgecrest Solar Power Project – Solar Millennium, in Kern County (250 MW)

14. Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System – BrightSource Energy Inc., in Inyo County (500 MW)

15. Rio Mesa Solar Electric Generating Facility – BrightSource Energy Inc., in Riverside County (750 MW)

  • California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) did not intervene. Representatives of Laborers Local Union No. 1184 expressed support for the project and looked forward to jobs.

16. Calico Solar Project (Formerly SES Solar One Project) – Calico Solar LLC/Tessera Solar (formerly Stirling Energy Systems), in San Bernardino County (663.5 MW)

Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!