L.A.‘s Record-Low Solar Project Hits Snag in Union Resistance

Sep 3, 2019 06:19 PM ET
  • Developer 8minute’s groundbreaking solar project is caught up in a disagreement over the city’s clean energy transition.
L.A.‘s Record-Low Solar Project Hits Snag in Union Resistance
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Los Angeles made waves this summer by finalizing a 400-megawatt solar project with a record-breaking low price. But the project, developed by 8minute Solar Energy, still needs final approval.
That approval failed to materialize in a vote Tuesday, after the municipal utility union expressed concerns about the project, the L.A. Times reported. The L.A. Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the Eland solar project, but with one member abstaining and one absent, it failed to clear the majority needed to approve.
The Eland project will get another shot; it is now slated for another hearing on September 10. But the uber-low pricing — $19.97 per megawatt-hour for solar power under a 25-year power-purchase agreement — is predicated on beginning construction this year, before the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit steps down. That means it will be imperative to sort out the controversy quickly so that construction can mobilize.
“While we were disappointed the project did not receive approval yesterday, we remain confident the issues raised will be resolved quickly," 8minute Director of Marketing Jeff McKay wrote in an email Wednesday. "We feel strongly that this project is a win-win for everyone involved.”
The objections to the approval appear to have more to do with the city's broader transition to cleaner electricity than the Eland project itself.
The leader of the utility union International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 has criticized Mayor Eric Garcetti's Green New Deal plan, which will shut down three coastal gas plants. IBEW business manager Brian D'Arcy alleges the decision will cut jobs, raise the prices on electricity and threaten blackouts, and even went so far as to call the mayor's plan "a childlike proposal," as reported in the L.A. Times.
City officials insist nobody will lose their job due to the plant closures, and power will stay affordable and reliable. 
IBEW Local 18 did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The union told the Times that "concerns needed to be raised" about the solar project, but did not describe the nature of the issues in detail. 
The Eland project is separate from the effort to close the gas plants, although it is indicative of a new approach to grid planning. 8minute will pair the solar arrays with large batteries totaling up to 300 megawatts of capacity, to make the clean generation available on demand. By shifting solar power into the evening, the plant would reduce the need to rely on gas peakers or hydropower to meet peak demand.
Since the commission vote, 8minute has been working with the IBEW to clarify that all construction jobs will employ California workers under project labor agreements, McKay said. Concern over use of out-of-state labor was one item raised at the hearing.
If that resolves the controversy, the project could get the nod on September 10. If further procedural setbacks arise, even for a project at a groundbreaking low price point, the precedent could complicate L.A.'s quest to power itself with clean energy.

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