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Renewable energy: Labor coalition's tactics draw heat

February 6, 2011 | 10:12 am

Blythe solar

Do California construction unions raise concerns about building massive solar plants in the Mojave Desert because they care about wildlife, water shortages and delicate vegetation? Or is it, as some fellow labor unions charge, a way to extort expensive contracts from renewable-energy builders?

In the last decade, a coalition calling itself California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), organized by the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, has filed more than 1,300 requests for information about endangered species, air pollution and groundwater effects as a part of government permit proceedings for all 12 renewable energy projects planned for the Southern California desert.

But when the developers of eight of those projects -- one geothermal plant and seven solar plants -- agreed to sign expensive contracts with the building trades unions to supply workers, CURE dropped its objections to those plants.

The contracts give CURE unions -- which represent plumbers, pipe-fitters, electrical workers and boilermakers -- control over work rules, including hiring. CURE also taps developers for payments as high as $400,000 to a CURE fund promoting the industry.

Three California unions that represent carpenters, laborers and operating engineers -- and are not CURE members -- say the coalition's threats of lawsuits against renewable-energy projects are "shameful" tactics that could drive projects out-of-state at a time when California unemployment is more than 12%.

CURE is "here for one reason, which is to extract or shoehorn this company, this industry, into a project labor agreement that is ... costly and restrictive," Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, told the California Energy Commission last year.

The struggle over labor costs and permits for solar plants comes at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to streamline the licensing of renewable-energy facilities. A law to require utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 is expected to be adopted in the Legislature this year.

Read more in Marc Lifsher's story about the intra-labor dispute over renewable-energy plants.

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SoCal Edison: nation's largest solar energy provider

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Site of a solar plant near Blythe, Calif. CURE, a labor union coalition, dropped its environmental objections to the plant after its developers signed an agreement with building trades unions to oversee the project. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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