Building solar farms may not build the middle class

An aerial view of workers mounting panels at the nearly 2,000 acre Assembly Solar Project near Flint, Mich, May 19, 2021. The green economy is shaping up to look less like the industrial workplace that lifted workers into the middle class in the 20th century than something more akin to an Amazon warehouse or a fleet of Uber drivers: grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits. Erin Schaff/The New York Times
To hear Democrats tell it, a green job is supposed to be a good job — and not just good for the planet.

The Green New Deal, first introduced in 2019, sought to “create millions of good, high-wage jobs.” And in March, when President Joe Biden unveiled his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, he emphasised the “good-paying” union jobs it would produce while reining in climate change.

“My American Jobs Plan will put hundreds of thousands of people to work,” Biden said, “paying the same exact rate that a union man or woman would get.”

But on its current trajectory, the green economy is shaping up to look less like the industrial workplace that lifted workers into the middle class in the 20th century than something more akin to an Amazon warehouse or a fleet of Uber drivers: gruelling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.

Kellogg Dipzinski has seen this up close, at Assembly Solar, a nearly 2,000-acre solar farm under construction near Flint, Michigan.

“Hey I see your ads for help,” Dipzinski, an organiser with the local electrical workers union, texted the site’s project manager in May. “We have manpower. I’ll be out that way Friday.”

“Hahahahaha …. yes — help needed on unskilled low wage workers,” was the response. “Competing with our federal government for unemployment is tough.”

For workers used to the pay standards of traditional energy industries, such declarations may be jarring. Building an electricity plant powered by fossil fuels usually requires hundreds of electricians, pipe fitters, millwrights and boilermakers who typically earn more than $100,000 a year in wages and benefits when they are unionised.

But on solar farms, workers are often nonunion construction labourers who earn an hourly wage in the upper teens with modest benefits — even as the projects are backed by some of the largest investment firms in the world. In the case of Assembly Solar, the backer is DE Shaw, with more than $50 billion in assets under management, whose renewable energy arm owns and will operate the plant.

While Biden has proposed higher wage floors for such work, the Senate prospects for this approach are murky. And absent such protections — or even with them — there’s a nagging concern among worker advocates that the shift to green jobs may reinforce inequality rather than alleviate it.

“The clean tech industry is incredibly anti-union,” said Jim Harrison, the director of renewable energy for the Utility Workers Union of America. “It’s a lot of transient work, work that is marginal, precarious and very difficult to be able to organise.”

The Lessons of 2009

Since 2000, the United States has lost about 2 million private-sector union jobs, which pay above-average wages. To help revive such “high-quality middle-class” employment, as Biden refers to it, he has proposed federal subsidies to plug abandoned oil and gas wells, build electric vehicles and charging stations and speed the transition to renewable energy.

Industry studies, including one cited by the White House, suggest that vastly increasing the number of wind and solar farms could produce over half a million jobs a year over the next decade — primarily in construction and manufacturing.

David Popp, an economist at Syracuse University, said those job estimates were roughly in line with his study of the green jobs created by the Recovery Act of 2009, but with two caveats: First, the green jobs created then coincided with a loss of jobs elsewhere, including high-paying, unionised industrial jobs. And the green jobs did not appear to raise the wages of workers who filled them.

The effect of Biden’s plan, which would go further in displacing well-paid workers in fossil-fuel-related industries, could be similarly disappointing.

In the energy industry, it takes far more people to operate a coal-powered electricity plant than it takes to operate a wind farm. Many solar farms often make do without a single worker on site.

In 2023, a coal- and gas-powered plant called DE Karn, about an hour away from the Assembly Solar site in Michigan, is scheduled to shut down. The plant’s 130 maintenance and operations workers, who are represented by the Utility Workers Union of America and whose wages begin around $40 an hour plus benefits, are guaranteed jobs at the same wage within 60 miles. But the union, which has lost nearly 15% of the 50,000 members nationally that it had five years ago, says many will have to take less appealing jobs. The utility, Consumers Energy, concedes that it doesn’t have nearly enough renewable energy jobs to absorb all the workers.

“A handful will retire,” said Joe Duvall, the local union president. “The younger ones I think have been searching for what they’d like to do outside of Karn.”

While some of the new green construction jobs, such as building new power lines, may pay well, many will pay less than traditional energy industry construction jobs. The construction of a new fossil fuel plant in Michigan employs hundreds of skilled tradespeople who typically make at least $60 an hour in wages and benefits, said Mike Barnwell, the head of the carpenters union in the state.

By contrast, about two-thirds of the roughly 250 workers employed on a typical utility-scale solar project are lower-skilled, according to Anthony Prisco, the head of the renewable energy practice for the staffing firm Aerotek. Prisco said his company pays “around $20” per hour for these positions, depending on the market, and that they are generally nonunion.

Biden has proposed that clean energy projects, which are subsidised by federal tax credits, pay construction workers so-called prevailing wages — a level set by the government in each locality. A few states, most prominently New York, have enacted similar mandates.

But it’s not clear that the Senate Democrats will be able to enact a prevailing wage mandate over Republican opposition. And the experience of the Recovery Act, which also required prevailing wages, suggests that such requirements are less effective at raising wages than union representation. Union officials also say that much of the difference in compensation arises from benefits rather than pay.

A Different Kind of Owner

Union officials concede that some tasks, like lifting solar panels onto racks, don’t necessarily require a skilled trades worker. But they say that even these tasks should be directly supervised by tradespeople, and that many others must be performed by tradespeople to ensure safety and quality. “If you hire people off the street at $15 per hour, they’re not skilled and they get injuries,” Barnwell said. “We would never let a bunch of assemblers work together alone.”

One potentially dangerous job is wiring the hundreds or thousands of connections on a typical project — from solar panels to boxes that combine their energy to the inverters and transformers that make the electricity compatible with the rest of the grid.

Barnwell’s union has developed a contract that would employ far more skilled workers than the industry norm so that two-thirds of the workers on a project are tradespeople or apprentices. To be more competitive with nonunion employers, the contract offers tradespeople only $18 an hour in benefits, roughly half the usual amount, and a wage of slightly under $30 an hour. Apprentices earn 60-95% of that wage plus benefits, depending on experience.

So far, there have been relatively few takers. A key reason is that while utilities have traditionally built their own coal- and gas-powered plants, they tend to obtain wind and solar energy from other companies through so-called power purchase agreements. That electricity is then sent to customers through the grid just like electricity from any other source.

When utilities build their own plants, they have little incentive to drive down labour costs because their rate of return is set by regulators — around 10% of their initial investment a year, according to securities filings.

But when a solar farm is built and owned by another company — typically a green energy upstart, a traditional energy giant or an investment firm like DE Shaw, the owner of Assembly Solar in Michigan — that company has every incentive to hold down costs.

A lower price helps secure the purchase agreement in the first place. And because the revenue is largely determined by the purchase agreement, a company like DE Shaw must keep costs low to have a chance of earning the kind of double-digit returns that a regulated utility earns. Every dollar DE Shaw saves on labour is a dollar more for its investors.

“For third parties selling power to utilities, they are competing to get the contract,” said Leah Stokes, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies utilities. “And the difference between what they’re paid and what their costs are is profit.”

Union Labour, ‘Where Possible’

In mid-2019, the electrical workers union in Flint elected a trim and tightly coiled man named Greg Remington as its business manager and de facto leader. Around the same time, Remington ran into an official with Ranger Power, the company developing the project for DE Shaw, at a local planning commission meeting.

“He was all smiles — ‘Oh, yeah, we look forward to meeting,’” Remington said of the official. “But he never returned another phone call. I sent emails and he never got back to me.”

Development is the stage of a solar project in which a company buys or leases land, secures permits and negotiates a power purchase agreement with a utility. After that, the developer may cede control of the project to a company that will build, own and operate it.

But the two companies often work in tandem, as in the case of DE Shaw and Ranger Power, which are joint-venture partners “on certain Midwest projects and assets,” according to a Ranger spokeswoman. DE Shaw helps fund Ranger Power’s projects, and its involvement provides the resources and credibility to get projects off the ground.

When a lawyer for Ranger Power appeared at a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing in Indiana to help advance a Ranger project there in 2019, he emphasised that “the development backing is from D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments,” adding that “they own and operate 31 wind and solar projects across the nation, and they have over $50 billion in investments.” (The firm’s project portfolio is now much larger.)

Still, given the sometimes messy manoeuvring that goes into obtaining land and permits, it can be helpful for a prominent firm like D.E. Shaw to stand at arm’s length from the development process.

In a 2018 letter to a local building trades council in southern Illinois, known as the Egyptian Building Trades, a Ranger Power official wrote that a solar project the company was developing in the area was “committed to using the appropriate affiliates of the Egyptian Building Trades, where possible, to provide skilled craftsmen and women to perform the construction of the project.” The letter said any entity that acquired the project would be required to honour the commitment.

But the project mostly hired nonunion workers to install solar panels. According to a complaint filed by a local union last fall with the Illinois Commerce Commission, the construction contractor has used workers who are not qualified and not supervised by a qualified person “to perform electrical wiring and connections” and paid them less than the union rate.

Prairie State Solar, an entity owned by DE Shaw that was created to oversee the project, has denied the claims. Prairie State has hired union tradespeople for a portion of the work.

Ranger officials likewise played up the construction jobs that the Assembly Solar project would bring to Michigan. But by the time Remington got involved, the county had approved the project and he had little leverage to ensure that they were union jobs. “A lot of this stuff, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.

County officials say that the project is bringing large benefits — including payments to landowners and tax revenue — and that they have no say over organised labour’s involvement. “I don’t think it’s our responsibility in any way to intervene on behalf of or against a union,” said Greg Brodeur, a county commissioner.

‘Like a Moving Assembly Line’

On an afternoon in mid-May, several labourers coming off their shift at Assembly Solar said they were grateful for the work, which they said paid $16 an hour and provided health insurance and 401(k) contributions. Two said they had moved to the area from Memphis and two from Mississippi, where they had made $9 to $15 an hour — one as a cook, two in construction and one as a mechanic.

Jeff Ordower, an organiser with the Green Workers Alliance, a group that pushes for better conditions on such projects, said that out-of-state workers often found jobs through recruiters, some of whom make promises about pay that don’t materialise, and that many workers ended up in the red before starting. “You don’t get money till you get there,” Ordower said. “You’re borrowing money from friends and family just to get to the gig.”

The Assembly Solar workers described their jobs installing panels: Two workers “throw glass,” meaning they lift a panel onto the rack, while a third “catches it,” meaning he or she guides the panel into place. Another group of workers passes by afterward and secures the panels to the rack.

One of the men, who identified himself as Travis Shaw, said he typically worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. six days a week, including overtime. Another worker, Quendarious Foster, who had been on the job for two weeks, said the workers motivated themselves by trying to beat their daily record, which stood at 30 “trackers,” each holding several dozen panels.

“Solar is like a moving assembly line,” said Prisco, the staffing agency leader. “Instead of the product moving down the line, the people move. It replicates itself over and over again across 1,000, 2,000 acres.”

Prisco and other experts said meeting a tight deadline was often critical. In some cases, project owners must pay a penalty to the electricity buyer if there are delays.

Elsewhere on the site, Remington pointed out a worker whom he had seen splicing together cables, but she declined to comment when approached by a reporter. Remington, who visits frequently and has the moxie of a man who, by his own accounting, has been chased around “by some of the finest sheriffs” in Michigan during hunting season, said he had asked the worker the day before if she was a licensed journeyman or if a journeyman was directly supervising her work, as state regulations require. The worker indicated that neither was the case.

A spokeswoman for McCarthy Building Cos., the construction contractor for D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, said that all electrical apprentices were supervised by licensed journeymen at the state-mandated ratio of 3-1 or better and that all splices involved a licensed electrician.

During a brief encounter on site with a reporter, Brian Timmer, the project manager who had exchanged a text with a union organiser, said, “That’s the reason I can’t talk to you” when he was asked about union labor. “It gets a lot of people upset.” (Remington said he was later told by McCarthy that it might use union electricians for a limited assignment — repairing some defective components.)

The county electrical inspector, Dane Deisler, said that McCarthy had produced licenses when he had asked to see them, but that he hadn’t “physically gone through and counted” the licenses and didn’t know how many licensed electricians were on site.

Remington is convinced there are far fewer than a project of this scale requires. “That’s a high-voltage splice box right there,” he said while driving around the perimeter, alluding to potential dangers. He pointed to another box and said, “Tell me if you don’t think that’s electrical work.”

Later, explaining why he invested so much effort in a job site where few of his members are likely to be employed, Remington reflected on the future. “Well, this is going to be the only show in town,” he said. “I want us to have a piece of it.”

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