October 5, 2007 Volume 108 Number 19

Conversion to renewable energy generating union jobs

By DON MCINTOSH, Associate Editor

A worldwide shift toward renewable energy is under way, fueled by rising gas prices and growing concern about global warming. And far from the job-killer that people once feared, the conversion is generating good-paying construction, manufacturing and utility jobs. Skilled union workers, in many cases, are part of the cutting edge.

“The Northwest is blessed with a generous endowment of all the renewables,” said Rachel Shimshak, director of Renewable Northwest Project, which promotes development of wind, solar, and geothermal for producing electricity.

Those three, plus “wave” energy from the ocean, are the “new renewables.” Add them to the old renewables — hydroelectric and biomass — and the region is sure to remain tops in the nation for clean energy.

Oregon, for example, gets about 47 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, compared to six percent for the United States as a whole. Most of that — 43 percent — is hydroelectric, but about 4 percent is biomass. Just 1 percent is wind and geothermal.

But investment in new renewables is ramping up tremendously now in Oregon, driven for the most part by government mandates and tax incentives.

This year, the Oregon Legislature increased the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit from 35 percent to 50 percent, doubled the maximum to $20 million, and changed the rules to allow companies to take both the state credit and a similar 30 percent federal tax credit. That means when a business installs a renewable energy system in Oregon, the state and federal governments will pay out 80 percent of the cost over a five-year period. Expect to see an explosion of renewables in Oregon. An 80 percent subsidy makes it pretty affordable to put a photovoltaic panel on a roof or a methane digester next to a feedlot.

Multnomah County is about to make creative use of the tax credit. At the instigation of Commissioner Jeff Cogen, the county is seeking bids for investors to lease a parking lot and and four county building rooftops, install photovoltaic panels, and sell the electricity back to the County at the same rate it’s currently paying. Proposals are due Nov. 12.

Starting next January, 1.5 percent of the budget of all state or local government construction or remodeling projects in Oregon will have to go toward solar technology, thanks to another bill introduced this year by State Rep. (and union Carpenter) Paul Holvey (D-Eugene.)

There’s no guarantee the installation will be done by union workers, but the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has been working to get ahead of the curve. Since 2002, the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center on Northeast Airport Way in Portland has trained over 400 journeymen in how to properly install photovoltaic panels. It’s a popular subject at the training center. A class in Photo-Voltaic Energy Generation Systems that begins in January had just one spot remaining as of press time.

“The market is increasing, and we want to capture as much of it as we can,” said the training center’s solar specialist, Brian Crise, who helped revise the Solar Photovoltaic Systems chapter of the National Electrical Code.

IBEW’s market share in residential solar installation is pretty small. But several well-known union commercial-industrial contractors now have solar divisions and a growing business, including EC Company and Dynalectric.

Solar installation employs electricians, but there are also jobs on the manufacturing side, like the workers at the Solarworld AG facility in Vancouver, Wash., who are represented by the Machinists Union. In February, Solarworld bought the former Komatsu silicon chip plant in Hillsboro, and announced plans to invest $400 million to remake it as a solar silicon wafer and solar cell production facility. When it reaches full capacity by 2009, the German-owned plant is expected to be the largest solar factory in North America, with around 1,000 workers.

And California-headquartered Solaicx, a manufacturer of silicon ingots and wafers used in the solar energy industry, announced in June that it will be locating a solar chip factory in Portland’s Rivergate Industrial District, employing around 100 workers.

Meanwhile, other skilled trades are reaping the wind. Wind turbines aren’t manufactured locally (yet), but Danish turbine maker Vestas employs about 200 people at its North American headquarters in Portland. Ships bearing Vestas wind turbines made in Europe and towers made in Vietnam are being unloaded by union longshore workers at the Port of Vancouver using a special $23 million crane installed for that purpose. The windmill components head up I-84 aboard Wilhelm Trucking and Rigging trucks driven by members of Teamsters Local 162. Then union Iron Workers, Operating Engineers Laborers and Electricians install them.

The Columbia Gorge east of the Cascades is fast becoming a giant wind farm, with 438 megawatts of currently-installed peak capacity from wind turbines, 919 megawatts approved for construction within the next year or so, and 1,847 megawatts more under review. [As it’s commonly described, a megawatt is enough electricity to power 1,000 homes; wind turbines typically operate at about a third of peak capacity, because the wind doesn’t always blow at top speed.]

D.H. Blattner & Sons, the general contractor on the wind farms, started out open shop on the Stateline Wind Project, but unions worked to build a relationship, and now the company signs project labor agreements pledging to use all-union crews.

Blattner is currently overseeing the construction of two wind farms — PGE’s 450 megawatt Biglow Canyon and the 285 megawatt Klondike III; both are in Sherman County. Also in the works are the Leaning Juniper II wind farm in Gilliam County (279 megawatts) and and expansion of the Stateline farm in Umatilla County. Four more wind farms — in Wasco Sherman, Gilliam, and Morrow counties — are at earlier stages in site review process.

That pace is likely to continue under another new law approved by the Oregon Legislature this year — it requires the state’s investor owned utilities (PGE and Pacificorp) to get 25 percent of the electricity they sell in Oregon from new renewable sources by 2025.

Then there’s biomass, a catchall term — basically organic material which is burned to create energy. That can mean cowpies — like methane digesters on a feedlot or dairy farm — or it can mean wood products.

Denny Scott, assistant director of the Carpenters Industrial Council, said his union has been calling on the U.S. Forest Service to award long-term stewardship contracts to thin overcrowded forests — to reduce catastrophic forest fires and provide biomass fuel. Currently several mills use sawdust or woodchips to generate energy for consumption in the mill, turning a waste product into a renewable fuel source. To expand, Scott said, companies would need to know they would have a steady supply of new material.

Another underexploited source of energy is geothermal: Oregon is geologically active, with hot springs and volcanic activity under the surface, particularly in the central part of the state. In Klamath Falls, with the help of federal money, the Oregon Institute of Technology is planning to drill a mile-deep geothermal well and use the steam to generate about one megawatt of electricity, enough to power the campus.

The final frontier, perhaps, is wave energy from Oregon’s 300-mile coastline. Several technologies are being tested. Oregon Iron Works in Clackamas, which employs members of Iron Workers Shopmens Local 516, has signed contracts with New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technology and the Canadian company Finavera Renewables to build prototype wave energy buoys. And in April, Australian-headquartered Oceanlinx Limited announced plans to build a “wave park” one to three miles off the Oregon coast near Florence. At least 10 floating wave energy buoys would be anchored to the seabed, generating up to 15 megawatts, with the potential for more to be added.

Taken together, says Shimshak of Renewable Energy Northwest, the region’s new renewables could supply the region’s energy needs, and supply energy-hungry California as well.

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