Thursday, November 11, 2010
Abrand new array of solar panels designed to generate 1.7 million megawatts of power at the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Authority’s Marina headquarters is getting a less than sunny reception from local union electricians.
The project should generate enough energy to treat irrigation water for 12,000 nearby acres of strawberry, artichoke and broccoli fields. But union labor isn’t part of the specs.
That didn’t sit well with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 234, where unemployment hovers around 20 percent.
“They could have put in an apprenticeship program,” says the IBEW’s Andy Hartmann. “They could have said that they wanted a local work force, but they didn’t.”
MRWPCA Assistant General Manager Brad Hagemann noted that the project, which is scheduled to go live later this month, will save an estimated $9,000 a month in power bills and offset 60 million pounds of greenhouse gases over the next 30 years.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Hagemann says.
Solar City, a Foster City-based installation company, will cover the entire cost of building the photovoltaic array under a power purchase agreement with the agency. MRWPCA has agreed to buy power from Solar City at rates 30 percent lower than Pacific Gas & Electric’s until 2030, when the agency may buy the solar panels for fair-market value.
With power purchase agreements gaining in popularity, Hartmann says he wants to ensure IBEW members and Monterey County workers get a piece of the pie.
A Wal-Mart store in Marina has recently negotiated a power purchase agreement, as has Hollister’s wastewater treatment agency, and solar arrays are under construction at both sites.
Hartmann argues that public agencies could multiply the benefits of future solar projects by insisting that companies use them to train local unskilled and unemployed workers, so county residents gain a foothold in the growing clean-tech economy.
“We’re going to try to educate city councils and such about what they can actually do instead of just settling for a project,” he says.
Hartmann also wants future power purchase agreements to include prevailing wage provisions. Prevailing wage laws, which require union wages on public-sector construction projects, don’t automatically apply to power purchase agreements because private companies build, maintain and own the solar arrays. Still, such agreements could be negotiated, Hartmann says.
Union apprentices earn about $37 per hour; electricians can command as much as $41 per hour, Hartmann says.
Solar City reports that it hired 37 assembly workers, who bolted the solar array’s panels and rails, from a local temp agency. But MRWPCA officials couldn’t say how much the workers earned. A Sacramento subcontractor provided the remaining 20 skilled electricians.
“Could the contract have included this or that? I guess,” Hagemann says. “But it wasn’t part of our vision that this would be a construction project.”
Would Hagemann approach the MRWPCA deal differently if he had to do it all over again? “I’d have to punt that to the board,” he says, adding that Solar City could have upped the price if union labor were required.
“The board would have had to decide. You can do this deal at 11 cents [per kilowatt-hour], or with conditions at 12 cents.”