Fairly or not, news media has recently brought negative public attention to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a $2.2 billion thermal solar power plant built under a union Project Labor Agreement in California’s Mojave Desert.
Owners of Ivanpah (BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google) have applied for a $539 million tax credit to help repay a $1.6 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan from 2011. Some news sources have asserted that the power plant has failed to meet performance expectations for energy generation while greatly exceeding performance expectations for bird kills.
This public criticism peaked around November 10, the day when construction union officials inopportunely held a press conference to promote public policies to grow a “blue-green” economy in California.
At an electrical union facility in San Leandro (near Oakland), union officials, leaders of the Sierra Club, an Obama Administration official, and a college professor used the press conference to highlight the need for unions to control California’s so-called “green energy” construction and maintenance.
A professor at the University of Utah who regularly produces studies on behalf of construction unions used the press conference to release a new study calling for “stronger labor policies & alliances in order for a just transition to clean energy.” His study reiterates many of the claims in an earlier 2012 study from the University of California Miguel Contreras Labor Program.
What are these policies and alliances? The Ivanpah solar power plant is a typical example of how unions are obtaining monopolies on construction of most green energy generation facilities in California. Merit is not the primary basis for getting the work.
BrightSource Energy had submitted an application in August 2007 to the California Energy Commission for construction and operation of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. In December 2007, a phony environmental organization called California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) intervened in the approval process for the power plant.
Throughout 2008, CURE provided status reports to the California Energy Commission about its evaluation of the project and its intent to request data from BrightSource Energy about the environmental impact of the power plant. It was a typical union threat to “greenmail” a developer by objecting to a proposed project on environmental grounds and gumming up the approval process until the developer signs a union agreement.
In December 2009, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and the Building & Construction Trades Council of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties announced a Project Labor Agreement for construction of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Union officials had indicated a month earlier that negotiations between the newly-selected general contractor and unions had been completed.
Once the Project Labor Agreement was signed, California Unions for Reliable Energy disappeared. Legitimate environmental organizations were left with the task of protecting the desert tortoise.
An article about Ivanpah in the August 2011 issue of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers national newsletter bragged about the involvement of unions in construction of the power plant:
Marc Joseph, an attorney who has handled negotiations over project labor agreements and has worked to remove obstacles to solar development for the California Building and Construction Trades, estimates that, in California alone, projects on the books will total more than 27 million man-hours of work for the trades…
At California’s Ivanpah Dry Lake in the Mojave near the Nevada border, members of San Bernardino Local 477 are building a solar energy system for BrightSource Energy under a project labor agreement that will provide 4 million man-hours of work to the building trades.
Most outrageous in this article is the cynical praise from the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California to the California Energy Commission for approving the project without “lengthy delays.”
At a groundbreaking ceremony last October, Bob Balgenorth, president of the state’s Building and Construction Trades Council and former business manager of Santa Ana Local 441, thanked the Obama administration for making available $1.4 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees and placing Ivanpah on the list of 16 priority clean energy projects. He also praised the California Energy Commission for approving the project, also funded with $300 million from NRG Energy and $168 million from Google, without the lengthy delays that often stymie facility startups.
To see who actually triggers many of those “lengthy delays” at the California Energy Commission, see the 2013 UnionWatch articles Did Unions Hasten Demise of California’s Solar Thermal Power Plants? and Unions Extensively Interfere with California Solar Photovoltaic Power Plant Permitting.
As BrightSource Energy and its partners continue to press for federal grants and repayment extensions on its $1.6 billion federal loan to build Ivanpah, members of Congress should be aware of how unions managed to get control of the construction. Should American taxpayers subsidize a “blue-green economy” based on tactics many Americans would describe as extortion?
Since the majority leaders in the California State Legislature have no interest in constraining union abuse of the state’s environmental laws, perhaps the flow of federal money from Washington, D.C. needs to stop going to projects owned by developers who succumb to union demands in order to evade environmental objections. Withholding federal money might pressure the State of California to curtail the brazen and widespread exploitation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Warren-Alquist State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Act for purposes unrelated to environmental protection.
Sun Farms Grow IBEW Employment – The Electrical Worker Online – August 2011
Environmental and Economic Benefits of Building Solar in California: Quality Careers— Cleaner Lives – UC Berkeley Labor Center – November 10, 2014
2007-12-21 – Ivanpah Solar – CURE Petition to Intervene
2008-03-21 – Ivanpah Solar – CURE Status Report 1
2008-12-05 – Ivanpah Solar – CURE Status Report 2
2009-11-11 Ivanpah Solar – Inland Solar Project Tapping Large Union Workforce
2009-12-17 Press Release – Project Labor Agreement Signed – Ivanpah Solar
World’s Largest Solar Plant Applying for Federal Grant to Pay Off Federal Loan – Fox News Channel – November 8, 2014
The Top Five Things Some Media Can’t Seem to Remember about Ivanpah – BrightSource blog – November 13, 2014
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.