|Sun Shines On New IBEW Job Opportunities
Despite the economic slowdown in the construction market, many locals are successfully going after new job and training opportunities in alternative energy, including the rapidly growing solar industry.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar electric capacity grew by 37 percent in 2009, creating nearly 20,000 new jobs, making it one of the fastest growing sectors in the electrical industry—growth that is translating into jobs for out-of-work wiremen.
Silver State Solar
Las Vegas Local 357 member Tim Gardner is one of them. Laid off from the massive CityCenter project last fall, he is finally back to work, thanks to a new huge solar energy project currently underway in the Nevada desert.
He is one of the more than 200 IBEW members constructing the largest solar photovoltaic power system in North America.
The Copper Mountain solar plant, under construction in the remote El Dorado Valley, approximately 50 miles south of Las Vegas, will boast nearly 1 million solar panels. The 50-megawatt array is an expansion of the nearby 10-megawatt El Dorado Energy solar plant.
"Between IBEW Locals 357 and 396, the project is being built 100 percent by IBEW journeymen, apprentices and linemen," said Local 357 Business Manager David Jones.
California-based Sempra Generation, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, is expanding its Noperations to meet the increased demand of consumers in Southern California for clean and affordable energy. Crews broke ground on the project in March; it is expected to be online late this year.
Photovoltaics isn’t a new field for Local 357, which has developed a reputation throughout the state as the go-to people when it comes to solar.
In 2004, the local—with assistance from a grant from the Department of Energy—opened a photovoltaic lab at its Las Vegas training center. More than 800 members have gone through the program, says Jones. Gardner is one of them, using his downtime after being laid off to get certified in solar installation.
And in 2008, nearly 100 Local 357 members and travelers completed a 70,000-panel, 15-megawatt system at Nellis Air Force base, which is expected to eliminate more than 20,000 tons of carbon emissions.
"Our focus on alternative energy training has paid off for the IBEW in terms of real job creation," Jones said.
But getting the Copper Mountain project required the local to aggressively market itself. In addition to promoting its training capacities, the local agreed to a higher apprentice-to-journeyman ratio to cut down on costs.
With discussions about turning the El Dorado Valley into a statewide center for renewable energy, and a state requirement that at least five percent of its energy needs come from solar by 2015, photovoltaics is likely the future of electrical work in Nevada, Gardner said.
In June, NV Energy asked the state’s Public Utility Commission to support its plans to build a 200-mile transmission line, which would allow easier access to renewable energy resources generated in the more remote parts of the state.
"I don’t see a lot of high-end resorts and hotels in our near future, so we need to work on going after the renewable energy sphere, because there is a lot of room for it to grow," Gardner said.
A Market to Be Tapped
Successfully going after job opportunities in the new energy economy requires top-notch training in the latest renewable energy technologies.
Milwaukee Local 494’s year-old photovoltaic training program got a big boost this spring when We Energies, a utility serving Wisconsin and parts of Michigan, announced that it was awarding the local a $75,000 grant to help it develop a solar training lab.
"We view the IBEW as an important partner in the energy industry," said Jessica Thibodo-Johnson, a renewable energy specialist for We Energies. "And we are very interested in helping them develop their solar training facility."
The lab will be housed in Local 494’s newly constructed training center. It will consist of six solar work stations, which will give students hands on experience in assembling and disassembling PV panels and connecting them to the grid.
"We feel it is in our customers’ best interest to help develop solar training services through our partnership with the IBEW," Thibodo-Johnson said. "Our customers will benefit from a well-trained, highly skilled pool of certified solar installers that will help them take advantage of renewable energy incentives by safely installing photovoltaic panels."
JATC Continuing Education Coordinator John Cyr says that the local has put more than 60 IBEW journeymen through its solar training program in the last year and is looking to expand those numbers once the lab is completed by the end of the summer.
"We’ve got a big waiting list," he said.
The Wisconsin IBEW already boasts of nine locals offering photovoltaic training with more programs likely in the works, says Sixth District International Representative Terry Roovers.
"This is a market to be tapped," Cyr added. "But the success of solar is dependent on the quality and training of those doing the work and we are ready to make sure the industry can count on the best in the electrical field."