Unions Wait to Weigh in On San Diego's Renewable Energy Ambitions - Voice of San Diego

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Unions Wait to Weigh in On San Diego's Renewable Energy Ambitions

Union support could be crucial for San Diego’s plan to get to 100 percent renewable energy. A study on the plan’s feasibility is dropping soon, but unions are staying mum so far.

This story has been updated.

San Diego environmentalists are ready to transform the region’s energy sector, but it isn’t clear yet how much support they’ll get from local labor unions.

San Diego wants 100 percent of electricity sold within city limits to come from renewable sources by 2035. City officials say it won’t just be good for the environment, it’ll also create jobs through all the projects required to move the city from natural gas-fired power to green energy.

That has yet to guarantee the full support of local electrical workers.

The city could begin buying power for its 1.4 million residents from someone other than San Diego Gas & Electric. In doing so, the city would become what’s known as a “community choice aggregator,” also known as a CCA. Officials are still waiting on a technical and economic study of their options. It’s likely to be released later this spring, setting up a potential City Council vote could by the end of the year.

How local labor views the measure could determine how that vote comes down. Right now, they aren’t talking.

While San Diego unions have expressed general support for community choice in the past, they have yet to take a firm position on the city’s plans, in part because the city’s plans are not yet firm. Gretchen Newsom, the political director of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, indicated in an email that they are still finalizing their position but declined to comment further.

In San Diego, there are two IBEW locals – Local 569 and Local 465. Local 465’s membership base are SDG&E employees.

SDG&E is not a fan of the city’s plan. The company would still control the power lines, but the city would suddenly oversee buying power for many of the company’s customers. SDG&E would still exist, but it would be literally and figuratively less powerful.

If you look around California, unions have taken starkly different positions toward local governments getting into the power business.

If San Diego unions followed the path of Bay Area unions, labor here might send a letter saying there wasn’t a “snowball’s chance in hell” of labor’s cooperation, as one union official said in a 2015 exchange with Marin Clean Energy, the state’s oldest CCA.

If local labor instead followed the path of IBEW Local 11 in Los Angeles, they would welcome a CCA and the potential for “local economic investment, local power generation, local jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, local opportunities that provide pathways to middle-class careers,” as the union’s leader wrote in a recent letter to a supervisor in Los Angeles County.

There’s little dispute about the possibility of local green jobs. Across California, over 100,000 people work in the solar industry alone – about two-thirds of them in jobs that do not require a four-year college degree, according to a survey by the Solar Foundation.

There is, however, disagreement over how serious CCAs are about creating those jobs locally and how serious they are about working with unions.

In the Bay Area, part of the problem seems to be how Marin Clean Energy got off the ground.

First off, it barely did: It was nearly killed off by Pacific Gas & Electric, which waged an aggressive, multi-million-dollar campaign against CCAs.

But once Marin survived that, it wanted to sell electricity that was both greener and cheaper than PG&E’s. To do that, it bought power from outside of California and it also bought electricity that came from coal or gas but that it was able to label as “green” because it also purchased renewable energy certificates. The effect was that a portion of its power didn’t equate to new local projects or new local jobs, even though it got to claim it was selling more green energy.

“We were a very young agency financially, we had to be competitive with PG&E,” Greg Brehm, Marin’s director of power resources, told me. “It was very tough for us to compete financially without using that product.”

That’s partly how Marin ended up at odds with Bay Area unions, including IBEW Local 1245. That local’s business representative, Hunter Stern, once called Marin’s green energy just “pieces of paper” that were doing nothing to truly transform the region’s energy supply or, of course, build new things that required new union labor.

Since then, Marin has begun paying for or building a series of local power generation facilities.

Marin has also capped the amount of “green” power it can get from renewable certificates at 3 percent of its portfolio, spokeswoman Jamie Tuckey said.

CleanPowerSF, a CCA across the Bay from Marin, has does not use those certificates, said Barbara Hale, assistant general manager of San Francisco’s public utilities department. She said the move was in response to community demand.

In San Diego, the city has talked about buying certificates to meet 9 percent of its goals, but the overall intent of the plan is to develop new projects.

Stern is still skeptical, in part because he said because the project’s Marin has pursued are small, non-union or might have been built anyway, since PG&E also needs to add new energy projects to comply with state law.

“Our overarching interest that we have is that we want them to be good employers of workers who have high-wage jobs and benefits,” Stern said.

Marin says it is doing more local projects now. Its largest project to date, a 49-acre solar farm to be built in the city of Richmond in Contra Costa County, is required to hire half its workers from that area, which has struggling neighborhoods with persistently high unemployment compared to the rest of the Bay Area.

But not all the jobs for that project will be union. Still, Marin argues that its local projects create union work because they must still be connected to PG&E’s grid for the power to get to people’s homes. That work is done by PG&E workers, who are union workers.

Brehm, the director at Marin’s CCA, argues unions are basically a stalking horse for the PG&E because so many of their members work at the company.

“They are, in effect, a proxy for PG&E’s interest, so they blanket reject anything we say and do,” he said.

But worry about non-union work is what prompted the “snowball’s chance in hell” comment, said Greg Feere of the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, the official who sent the email. Marin wanted some workers on its projects to be non-union, including apprentice concrete and steel workers who are not yet in a union.

“I said, this is not happening, go get your workers from Home Depot,” Feere recalled in a telephone interview.

Elsewhere in California, the worry that such a thing might happen is prompting labor to take another approach.

IBEW Local 11 in Los Angeles wants to make sure that 82 cities in Los Angeles County that could soon be buying their own power are committed to doing local energy projects with union workers. Those projects include rooftop solar installations on industrial sites, local battery projects to capture wind and solar power, energy efficiency projects and electric vehicle charging systems.

“That’s not only what is best for our communities; that’s what’s best for our workforce and economic development,” Jennifer Kropke, Local 11’s director of sustainable workforce development, said in an email. “By that I mean, the good green jobs that pay family sustaining wages that come with that build out.”

This story has been updated to better describe the community choice aggregation program.

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