Members of Kennewick, Wash., Local 112 performed nearly all the work during construction of the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility. Credit: Local 112 member Kendel Castner.

Renewable energy construction isn't new for members of Kennewick, Wash., Local 112. Its jurisdiction is east of the Cascade Mountains, away from major metro areas like Seattle and Portland, and runs through many smaller communities in eastern Washington and Oregon. The area is ideal for wind energy.

The facility west of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington State is ideal for solar and wind. Credit: Local 112 member Kendel Castner.
A Local 112 member working at the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility stands by a buggy used to transport crews, retrieve parts and material, and bring water to workers.
A look at all three elements at the Wheatridge Facility: solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage systems. Photo courtesy of Portland General Electric.

"We've been working on windmills forever," Business Manager Travis Swayze said with a laugh. "We were doing windmills 25 years ago."

A renewable energy facility it worked on last year is different, however. It is the only one of its kind in the United States, although it may not be that way for long.

The Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility near tiny Lexington, Ore. — population about 240 — is the country's first plant to have wind, solar and battery storage all at one facility.

It's advanced technology, but pro-worker wins at the state and federal level drove the construction of Wheatridge, making clear that the clean energy revolution is a boon for union jobs.

Oregon officials have mandated an aggressive push toward clean energy, putting the onus on Portland General Electric, co-owner of the facility, to modernize its delivery systems.

On the federal level, the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in 2022 provided incentives for major energy companies like NextEra, the other co-owner, to invest even more heavily in renewables. The law includes a 30% tax credit for stand-alone battery storage.

Those factors, and the strong relationship Local 112 has with a prominent signatory contractor, led to about 2,000 of its members performing nearly all the work on the facility. All solar work, including the high-tech installation of battery systems, was done by Local 112 members.

"By constructing the country's first plant to combine wind, solar and battery storage, Local 112 members have proven their ability to adapt to new technologies and contribute to the advancement of clean energy," Ninth District International Vice President Dave Reaves said. "We applaud their commitment to excellence and look forward to future success in the growing field of renewable energy."

A Key Relationship

Wheatridge includes a 50-megawatt solar farm, a 300-megawatt wind farm and about 30 megawatts of battery storage. There are about 30 battery systems on site, with that number expected to grow. While it's the first facility of its kind, similar ones are going online in Ohio, Oklahoma and New Jersey.

Local 112 has a strong relationship with Cupertino Electric, a longtime signatory contractor that was chosen to handle construction. Business Representative Travis Sellers said that was particularly important when it came to the solar and battery construction. Both are fairly new in the Pacific Northwest, especially when compared to wind.

"We didn't have a project labor agreement on this project," Sellers said. "But having that relationship with Cupertino, and the relationship it had with the customer [NextEra], afforded the opportunity for the IBEW to perform most of this work.

"Cupertino and NextEra did not come in and want the cheapest alternative. They wanted it done right."

Swayze said Local 112 started performing some solar work in 2016, but nothing approaching what was done on the scale of Wheatridge.

"That was an easy transition," he said. "Once you learn how to do one, you can do a bunch. While there was training at the front end, it's a lot of repetition, putting up the panels.'

Or, as Local 112 executive board member Dan McConkey, who worked as a foreman at Wheatridge, said: "It's like climbing a wind tower. Once you climb for a week, your muscles get acclimated to it. Solar is the same thing. You're putting panels together and lifting them up. It's the same repetitive motion."

Battery installation was something entirely new.

McConkey said the 30 battery energy storage systems — commonly called BESS in the industry — were transported and placed throughout Wheatridge's 7,800 acres. They were in a prefabricated structure about 30 feet long and tall enough for a crew to finish installation, complete with air conditioning and heat.

The structures were crucial to protect the battery systems from the elements. The area around Wheatridge is known for extreme weather. Summer temperatures above 100 and winter temperatures below 20 degrees are common.

Local 112 members installed the underground wiring and attached it to the converter box. A computerized control system to determine when to store energy or release it to the grid was also installed.

But even in a highly technical system, skills like cutting conduit correctly were crucial. It had to be built around already constructed panels.

McConkey said work installing the battery systems was done from July 2021 to February 2022. Wheatridge was fully operational by the following summer.

"It was a lot of fun," said McConkey, who has been an inside wireman for nearly 20 years. "I felt like I was learning a lot of new things at this stage of my career. I had never worked on a solar project or battery storage. You knew this was something new."

Battery Breakthrough

Wind and solar are effective in the appropriate conditions: windy and sunny days, respectively. But when those two elements are lacking, utilities and energy providers usually must switch back to fossil fuels.

Battery storage allows facilities like Wheatridge to store that wind and solar energy for future use.

"Sites like this are fitting into sort of a larger grid network of providing reliable, renewable power that utilities across the West are increasingly drawing upon," Kristen Sheeran, PGE's director of sustainability strategy, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

A 2021 bill passed by the Oregon Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Kate Brown requires the state's utilities, including PGE, to eliminate carbon emissions from power sold in state by 2040.

Wheatridge is about 30 miles from the old Boardman Coal Plant, which was closed in 2020, and uses some of the same transmission lines. Boardman was the last coal-fired plant in the state.

Florida-based NextEra is a Fortune 500 company that is one of the world's leading companies in renewable energy. It has long been a leader in utility-scale wind but has moved into battery storage in recent years, another sign that technology is starting to mature and become more reliable.

"One of the great things about having battery storage integrated into the other two technologies is that it's already engineered and built for augmentation," David Lawlor, the company's director of development for the Pacific Northwest, told Oregon Public Media.

"So, these containers can take more batteries, and as the batteries become a little less efficient, we add more batteries to keep the capacity."

NextEra CEO John Ketchum told analysts on an earnings call earlier this year that the Inflation Reduction Act remains a key growth driver for the company.

The law established a tax credit for stand-alone battery storage. A company with the financial clout of NextEra can develop a project like Wheatridge and then cash in the tax credits, which can pay for up to 30% of the construction costs.

That, in turn, leads to more work for skilled construction workers. These often come in sparsely populated areas, where there is room for these facilities and where the energy can be sent to larger population centers.

"When we build a project … it's a complete turnaround for these rural communities," Ketchum told analysts, according to Utility Dive, an energy trade publication. "These are a 180 for these rural communities and make a huge difference in their viability going forward."

A Template

Oregon and Washington east of the Cascades are largely flat, with plenty of windy and sunny days. That, and the fact that Oregon officials are pushing toward clean energy more aggressively than most states, made it a perfect spot for Wheatridge.

But concentrating only on that misses an important point, Swayze said.

"We take a lot of pride in the IBEW here and a lot of pride in being cutting edge in our work," he said. "Yeah, having all four seasons, and having enough wind on 300 days a year helps, but PGE and NextEra are aware of the quality workforce we have. They wanted us to be part of the project with Cupertino. That's a big piece of this."

It's something that will continue. An additional phase of work is scheduled to be done at Wheatridge this summer. Local 112 members will be back at it.

The opportunities in renewable energy continue to grow, with no end in sight. That's good news for IBEW members.

"I'm so proud of Local 112 and its partnership with Cupertino that turned this groundbreaking facility into reality," International President Kenneth W. Cooper said. "This is a template for what is to come. Our members are ready to build these facilities thanks to their world-class skills and industry and political leaders recognizing the importance of union labor. Congratulations on a job well done."