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Boiling Point: Unions Clash with Solar Industry

By Gary Coronado - Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2021

Until recently, I had never heard of the Contractors State License Board, or CSLB. It’s a California agency that regulates the construction industry, with a goal of protecting public health and safety. Most of its 15 members are appointed by the governor.

Why am I telling you this? Because CSLB sent shock waves through the solar industry this summer when it ruled that rooftop solar companies would no longer be allowed to install batteries — an increasingly popular tool for keeping the lights on during blackouts — without getting a new license that might require them to overhaul their workforce. Solar industry leaders were apoplectic, saying the new requirement would be impossible to meet and would crash the market. They filed a lawsuit to block it.

The groups pushing the rule change framed it as a safety issue. By requiring solar companies to use certified electricians to handle battery installations, they’ve argued, state officials can limit the risk of lithium-ion battery fires, explosions and other hazards.

So on the surface, at least, this is a technical dispute over battery safety and workforce training requirements. But just below the surface lurks a long-simmering conflict between the rooftop solar industry and organized labor.

If that sounds familiar, well, you probably read my latest story (which I still hope you’ll subscribe to The Times to access, if you haven’t already), or last week’s edition of Boiling Point. In both pieces, I noted that most rooftop solar jobs are nonunion, unlike most jobs building large-scale solar farms. It’s a reality that has created constant tension in California, with politically powerful electrical and building trades unions pushing lawmakers to support big solar farms at the expense of rooftop installations.

The ongoing dispute over contracting standards is a revealing example of that tension.

The idea of barring most rooftop solar companies from installing batteries — unless they also obtain an electrical contractor’s license, which requires employees performing electrical work to be certified electricians — was first proposed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Assn., whose member companies hire IBEW workers.

“We can’t comply with this. People will go out of business,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Assn. “Prices will go up, and we’ll lose the ability to meet customer demand for clean energy.”

The CSLB’s 11-3 vote reversed the board’s earlier judgment that firms with C-46 solar contractor’s licenses could install batteries paired with solar panels. Del Chiaro said the about-face is especially damaging because homes and businesses that want solar increasingly want energy storage, too, to protect against wildfire-driven power outages and the threat of rolling blackouts.

When I called up folks on the other side of the debate to ask about all this, I got an entirely different version of events.

Eddie Bernacchi, a lobbyist for the National Electrical Contractors Assn., told me this is “a dispute between electrical contractors and solar contractors over jurisdiction,” not a union vs. nonunion issue. Requiring solar-plus-storage projects to be installed by contractors with certified electricians, he said, would not only improve safety, it would lead to higher wages in the solar industry.

“The electrical contractors offer a path to higher wages and a real career,” Bernacchi said.

Tom Enslow, an attorney representing the contractors association and IBEW, made a similar case. He said that while the new rule would allow union shops to better compete in the solar market, CSLB’s decision was “more about safety and precedent.”

“What’s happened is that the solar industry started pushing a theory that, hey, as long as we install an energy storage system at the same time, we should be allowed to do that work,” Enslow said. “It’s pretty clear they are separate systems.”

Those arguments seemingly convinced the state board. Nancy Springer, the chief building official for Sacramento County, said she and her fellow board members “have to be aware of protecting the consumers and making sure that they’re installed properly, and that people have the proper training.” Board member Johnny Simpson, who previously led an IBEW local and was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee, responded to calls for more debate by saying, “It’s time to put this issue to bed.”

I also spoke with Carol Zabin, who leads the UC Berkeley Labor Center’s Green Economy Program and co-authored a report that helped prompt CSLB’s decision. She said she and her team — which included a chemical safety expert — found little difference between the cost of a solar system installed by a firm using certified electricians and a firm not using certified electricians.

“It’s about whether you want a certified workforce or not,” Zabin said. “They have no certifications in that industry.”

Suffice to say the solar industry pushed back against those claims, hard.

Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Bay Area solar and battery installer Cinnamon Energy Systems, said the idea that companies like his don’t train their workers to handle energy storage systems is absurd. The companies that manufacture lithium-ion batteries — such as Enphase, LG and Tesla — also require workers who install their products to sit for several hours of training, Cinnamon said.

“You have to be trained, or they won’t sell you the battery,” he said.

By now, you’re probably wondering whether batteries really can be safety hazards. The answer: “Yes, but...”

Yes, but 60,000 residential batteries have been installed in California, and nobody can cite a single example of a serious safety incident. There was an explosion that injured first responders in Arizona, and more recently an overheating issue that resulted in the world’s largest battery facility, in Moss Landing, Calif., being shut down at least temporarily. But those problems involved large lithium-ion battery banks operated by utilities or big energy companies, not home batteries installed by solar contractors.

The UC Berkeley Labor Center’s report acknowledged that “there have been no significant incidents with injury or death that we could identify.” Still, the authors wrote, there are “significant data gaps that preclude definitive statements that risks are low.”

To Del Chiaro, fires ignited by power lines are a much bigger safety threat — and rooftop solar can limit the need for those lines, at least somewhat. She also pointed out that the utilities who own those lines — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — all submitted letters supporting the idea of barring solar contractors from installing batteries.

“Who is burning down the state and killing people? It’s PG&E and the other utilities,” Del Chiaro said. “We are the solution to that. We are keeping people’s homes lit. We’re keeping them safe when they need it, and solving climate change.”

CSLB agreed to delay enforcement of the rule after the California Solar and Storage Assn. filed suit, claiming the board had failed to conduct a formal rulemaking. But now CSLB is gearing up for that rulemaking, with an agenda item scheduled for Nov. 29.

To say this debate has gotten bitter is an understatement. Groups on both sides are furious with their opponents and can’t even agree on basic facts. There are many points of disagreement I haven’t gotten into here: How easy would it be for rooftop solar installers to get new licenses and hire certified electricians, and would doing so really cause prices to rise? How many companies would be affected by the new rule? What are the true wage differences between union and nonunion solar jobs?

As I’ve written previously, the labor movement can be a positive force for change in the clean energy transition. But there are also many examples of unions protecting the fossil-fueled status quo when they feel their livelihoods depend on it.

The feud between electrical workers and rooftop solar installers is more nuanced. But it offers a blunt reminder that the labor movement can make or break California’s climate policies. How exactly the state reduces emissions, and who benefits — that’s up for grabs. And whether it happens fast enough to stave off the worst wildfires and heat waves on the horizon is uncertain.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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