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 Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

Unions Defy CEQA Reformers with Taunting Resolution

Despite their reputation as effective and extensive abusers of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to pursue economic objectives unrelated to environmental protection, California union leaders are strategically choosing to be vocal activists against CEQA reform.

Union leaders are obviously quite confident that corporate executives and the news media will hesitate to make them accountable for their practice.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council are an essential part of the “CEQA Works” coalition organized by the California League of Conservation Voters to oppose CEQA reform. I predict these unions will be the major funding source for broadcast advertising from CEQA Works to undermine reform proposals. (Expect advertising to run soon on these radio stations.)

On February 11, 2013, the leadership of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO unanimously approved a resolution stating its commitment to “protecting the critical components of CEQA that have made it effective.” It was presented by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.

CEQA documents for proposed solar power plants in Fresno County as of August 7, 2012. A majority of these documents related to union CEQA objections.

This resolution consists of buzz words, emotive language, and facts taken out of context. Many of the declarations provoke laughter at close examination: for example, the resolution praises union “alliances with local businesses” even though small local businesses undermine private sector unionism by operating free of union work rules and not participating in multi-employer union-administered fringe benefit programs.

(This provision probably alludes to CEQA challenges to Wal-Mart supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. As reported in the UFCW Local Union No. 135 newsletter of October 2012, “…pro-business politicians in the California State Senate proposed gutting CEQA, making it much more difficult for us to stop Walmart and similar big-box retailers from coming to San Diego and other places in California.”)

But the resolution also reveals that unions know the psychology of their opponents. From their experience in union corporate organizing campaigns, union leaders recognize how business executives strive to protect their professional reputations and corporate images. The resolution is a warning to any corporate executive advocating for CEQA reform who might be tempted to explain publicly why unions oppose it.

Few California corporate executives have the gumption or rhetorical skill to openly challenge an organization supporting benevolent, humanistic impulses such as “smart and sustainable development,” “public health, especially in low-income communities,” and “protecting local communities, strengthening alliances with local businesses, and promoting the creation of good jobs.”

And as an additional defense from accusations of hypocrisy, union officials strategically included a direct accusation in the resolution that “many of the attacks on CEQA are coming from the same corporations that seek to roll back regulations that protect workers.”

Who would dare to counterattack by pointing out how unions use those regulations as a strategic tool to coerce businesses into collective bargaining?

And it’s not just corporate executives intimidated by the aggressive union counterthrust. Reporters, editors, and newspaper executives who dare to expose union hypocrisy are vulnerable to accusations about poor journalistic practices and reporting of right-wing innuendo.

I sent out two Tweets to present the other side of the story:

Unions oppose #CEQA reform – delaying projects & activities is an essential part of organizing strategy in California 

Union resolution to oppose #CEQA reform: subtly stating CEQA’s relevance to unions without detailing how unions use it …

These missives were tiny beacons of common sense and fiscal responsibility jettisoned into a maelstrom of leftist commentary on Twitter, to disappear into irrelevance.

No one affirmed my comments by citing a CEQA lawsuit filed on January 22, 2013 by the new, shadowy “Fresnans for Clean Air (FRESCA)” in Fresno County Superior Court alleging that the Fresno City Council failed to adequately assess the environmental damage caused by contracting out garbage services. No one asked about the status of the CEQA lawsuit filed on December 14, 2012 by the Laborers Union (LIUNA) Local No. 783 and “Concerned Bishop Residents” in Mono County Superior Court alleging that the Mono County Board of Supervisors failed to adequately assess the environmental damage caused by an upgrade of the Mammoth Pacific Unit 1 geothermal power plant.

Unions dumped these CEQA objections at a meeting of the United Port of San Diego Board of Commissioners on September 19, 2012.

No one mentioned the notorious CEQA document dumps in May 2012 and in September 2012 by the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council and UNITE HERE Local Union No. 30 against the proposed San Diego Convention Center Expansion Phase 3. In November, the unions announced “settlement agreements” that failed to address almost all of their environmental objections – including rising sea levels resulting from global warming – even as the unions obtained separate labor agreements for construction and hotel and hospitality services.

One of the declarations in the California Labor Federation resolution asserts that “claims of rampant CEQA litigation are wildly exaggerated since there is an average of only 200 CEQA (sic) per year” and that “only 1% or fewer projects subject to CEQA involve litigation of any sort.” While this statistic is deceptive in many ways, it doesn’t indicate how unions slow down projects using CEQA before ever reaching the point where their law firms need to file a lawsuit. There won’t be a union-instigated CEQA lawsuit to block the San Diego Convention Center Expansion Phase 3 – the preliminary activity under CEQA was enough to win the labor agreements.

The typical tactic used by exploiters of CEQA is “document dumps,” where an attorney submits a huge stack of CEQA objections at the last possible moment, sometimes with meek apologies. As a lawyer in California said to me last week, “The unions are at the point now where they don’t even need to submit comments about Environmental Impact Reports. The union law firm sends a public records request asking for the company’s application for a permit, and the company then calls up the law firm to arrange for a Project Labor Agreement.”

The web site was established by the Alliance for a Cleaner Tomorrow (ACT) in 2012 to document labor union involvement in CEQA environmental objections to proposed projects. Entries are based on actual legal documents that are hyperlinked for reference. The web site also includes the following news articles to show that once in a while, the truth leaks out about union CEQA exploitation:

Protests Over Valley Solar Projects Called a Ploy” – Fresno Bee – April 29, 2012

“Labor Coalition’s Tactics on Renewable Energy Projects Are Criticized” – Los Angeles Times – February 5, 2011

“Debate Brews in California Over Unions And Power Projects” – Platt’s Electric Power Daily – October 29, 2009

“A Move to Put the Union Label on Solar Power Plants” – New York Times – June 18, 2009

“Greenmail: Independent Builders Accuse Unions of Coercion” – Central Valley Business Journal – December 2007

“Union Staffing Demands Dim Market for Solar Panels” (Op-Ed) – Los Angeles Business Journal – October 8, 2007

“Unions Wielding Environmental Law to Threaten Foes” – Sacramento Business Journal – January 29, 2006

“Suits in California Delay Wal-Mart Supercenters” – Associated Press – March 20, 2005

“Pressure by Labor Group Alleged” – Sacramento Bee – September 19, 2004

“Struggle Over Power Plants” – Los Angeles Times – September 6, 2004

“Union Group Comes Under Fire at CEC [California Energy Commission] Workshop” – Energy Newsdata’s California Energy Markets – August 20, 2004

“Roseville OKs Labor Agreement for Power Plant” – Sacramento Business Journal – July 22, 2004

“Unions Push Roseville for Power Plant Pact” – Sacramento Business Journal – July 18, 2004

“No Strong-Arming” – Sacramento Business Journal (editorial) – July 18, 2004

“Unions Have Power Over Energy Plants” – Tri-Valley Herald (San Francisco: East Bay) – March 18, 2002

“Power Grab” (Editorial) – Wall Street Journal – February 15, 2001

“Blame Unions for Blackouts” (Op-Ed) – Engineering News-Record – January 29, 2001

“Unions Play Part in Power Crisis” – Bakersfield Californian – December 23, 2000

Kevin Dayton is the President and CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at