The complexities of deploying utility-scale solar are not new to developers and other industry stakeholders. These can range from issues around environmental impacts and equity to challenges regarding land-use, permitting and policy. Given the importance of large-scale solar on our country’s clean energy transition, many are seeking new collaborators to address these difficulties and facilitate its growth.
One recent effort involved three prominent labor unions. In October last year, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) signed a national tri-trade solar agreement (NTTSA) that streamlines the construction process for utility-scale solar projects.
Matt Paules, director of IBEW’s construction and maintenance department, explained that there are more than 70 solar-specific jobs outlined in the agreement, with each assigned to a specific union’s members.
“Where a normal project would include sometimes lengthy and contentious pre-job negotiations between the developer, contractors and the trades involved, working under this agreement eliminates that conflict entirely,” he said.
Under the agreement, general roles are pre-agreed: operating engineers are responsible for posts, laborers handle the racking and electrical workers hook up the panels and balance of electrical. The NTTSA also mitigates risk to developers and contractors in the following ways:
- Inflation Reduction Act compliance – Developers have peace of mind that projects meet the strict prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements of the IRA and therefore earn all available tax credits.
- Consistent staffing – If one union can’t fill a particular job call, that responsibility automatically rolls to the next union, and so on. This workforce flexibility minimizes wasted time and keeps projects on track.
- Permitting and planning – Developers have partners to assist with planning, permitting, siting and more. IBEW, LiUNA and IUOE’s connections with community leaders, lawmakers and utility customers across the United States can be leveraged to expedite project development.
“We believe this agreement is going to be a game-changer for developers and contractors in terms of getting jobs done on time and budget, easily meeting all the requirements of the IRA and eliminating the inter-trade conflicts that can slow jobs down,” Paules said.
A recent project based in the Northeast represented a different kind of collaboration to expedite large-scale solar deployment. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) sponsored a coordinated effort between software developer Utilidata, utility National Grid, national solar developer Standard Solar and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The project was a large-scale solar farm in upstate New York that explored the use of smart inverters in grid decarbonization. It used a holistic approach that brought together stakeholders from key segments of the industry to find a cost-effective way for utilities and developers to lower barriers to greater solar adoption.
Conversation is another way industry stakeholders have collaborated around this issue. A unique 2023 GRIDTech Forum gathered a mix of utility executives, representatives of regional transmission organizations, state legislators and developers to discuss how the disparate segments of the energy industry can work together to address grid-related issues. One particular focus was the successful buildout of the “smart grid” in deploying large-scale solar and battery storage.
The “Solar Uncommon Dialogue” session proved to be a particularly impactful series of conversations. The dialogue convened conservation groups, tribal interests, community representatives, environmental advocates and solar developers to identify mutually beneficial ways of addressing challenges around large-scale solar deployment. It resulted in an agreement to continue to work together and identify how to develop utility-scale solar in a way that champions land conservation and the interests of local communities.
Maggie Sasser is the VP of government and external affairs for Pine Gate Renewables and was the company’s representative in the Solar Uncommon Dialogue agreement process. Pine Gate was one of the agreement’s 21 total signatories including five other solar developers representing the interests of large-scale solar.
“The agreement launches six working groups that will each include a diverse set of stakeholders,” she said. “The groups will facilitate conversations around community and stakeholder engagement, smart siting practices, informational tools, engagement with tribal nations and policy and technology solutions that enable low conflict solar development.”
Sasser explained that Pine Gate chose to pursue these actions now because the contractor is one of a number of companies experiencing more frequent challenges around siting, permitting and construction of large-scale solar projects.
“We have realized that our internal development process needs to continue to evolve to meet the needs of local communities,” she said. “But we also recognized that external engagement with a broader group of stakeholders was necessary to better understand regional and national challenges and potential solutions.”
Sasser noted that collaborating across the range of stakeholders wasn’t always easy. She said that “the most valuable part of the process was when each stakeholder educated the broader group on their perspective and goals before we launched conversations about identifying conflicts and possible solutions. That level of baseline education can be a lesson to others pursuing solutions at any level to the multi-faceted issue of solar siting and project development.”
This story is part of SPW’s 2024 Trends in Solar. Read all of this year’s trends here.