LA’s IBEW Local 11 Spearheads a Transition to Clean Energy
Labor Network for Sustainability
Los Angeles IBEW Local Union 11 represents 13,000 Electricians, Communications and Systems Installers, Transportation Systems Journeyman, Civil Service Electricians, Apprentices, Construction Wireman and Construction Electricians. It describes itself as “a movement for social justice, safe jobsites, training, green jobs and opportunity for all.” It has become a pioneer in the transition to a climate-safe, worker-friendly energy system.
Net Zero Plus
According to Jennifer Kropke, Local 11’s Director of Workforce and Environmental Engagement, Local 11’s leadership recognized years ago that the movement away from fossil fuel energy to renewables was coming and that it was inevitable.
In 2011, Local 11 and the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Partnership, which represents 4,000 electrical contractors in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, began to rethink what electrical training should look like. The outcome was the construction of the Net Zero Plus Electrical Training Institute (NZP ETI). The 142,000 square foot NZP ETI building was the country’s largest Net Zero Plus commercial retrofit, using efficient design and technology to generate more energy than its own annual energy demand of nearly 1 Megawatt (MW). The project united “energy efficiency practices, new clean-energy technologies, improved grid resiliency, and career development.” The NZP ETI building – and its training – include an integrated suite of energy efficiency measures, including electrical vehicle charging, HVAC, battery storage, microgrids, energy dashboards, lighting, and exterior shading. It aimed to “transform commercial markets by employing the newest electrical technologies and training the most skilled workforce in the United States.”
Training is central to the NZP ETI project: Dick Reed, President of IBEW Local 11, noted, “Tomorrow’s electrical professionals must be trained to become Total Energy Solution Providers to help customers realize and create new revenues, reduce energy costs, invest in energy independence, and achieve sustainability goals.” A large proportion of apprentices are military veterans. The five-year apprenticeship program is free. The requirements are an interview and math and English tests. Those who can’t pass the math test can get free weekend tutoring. The program conducts outreach to disadvantaged communities. It works with private developers and county agencies to define workforce requirements – Los Angeles County, for example, requires that 10-15% of workers on its projects live in the county.
Community Choice Aggregation
In California, recent legislation permits a new form of energy distribution called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). Initially CCA was primarily seen as a way to reduce the cost of electricity. Labor took little interest. But as Jennifer Kropke explains, CCA “allows cities in investor-owned utility areas to come together to procure their own electricity and determine their own renewable portfolio mix, including workforce development language that focuses on local distributed energy build out and local jobs.”
As a result, Local 11 has become deeply involved in expanding CCA in the Los Angeles area and in shaping its policies to achieve a full transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and to provide good local jobs. It has been working in partnership with South Bay Clean Power – aka the local 350.org chapter. Jennifer Kropke told the Santa Monica city council, “I know it’s a crazy thought — labor and environmental groups working together.” But, “Yes, we are doing this. We are coming together for a common cause. We’re excited about the emphasis on good, local green jobs that pay family sustaining wages” in the SBCP business plan.
Local 11 sees retrofits, demand response energy generation, storage, and microgrids as key elements of the energy transition that need to be incorporated in CCA. It advocates an integrated approach to generating, buying, and storing energy locally. It sees enormous opportunities for solar expansion in Los Angeles, and advocates a transition to 100% renewable energy – the recent Los Angeles Solar and Efficiency Report (UCLA LASER) shows that Los Angeles County is using only 2% of its solar capacity. Just putting utility-scale solar on existing rooftops would create 40,000 jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking half-a-million cars off the road.
Local 11’s support for CCA is part of a broader effort to shift the LA region to 100% renewable energy. For example, Local 11 is part of a broad labor and environmental coalition that is working to move LA Metro toward zero-emission electric mass transit, with a planned transition from compressed natural gas to renewable energy-powered zero emission buses.
What does all this mean for union members who are working in the fossil fuel economy?
LOCAL 11 represents some of southern California’s many petroleum workers. According to Jennifer Kropke, the union’s philosophy is that refinery and extraction jobs must be union jobs. “We can debate fossil fuels, but if there are refineries in southern California, we must be sure they are union jobs to ensure that those workers have basic protections like healthcare and the best standard of living.”
No refineries represented by Local 11 are currently slated for closing. But when such shutdowns occur – as they inevitably will – whole communities will be disrupted and thousands of workers who currently make $60-100,000 a year will lose their jobs. While discussions of how to address this problem are in an early stage, Jennifer Kropke says that policies could be adopted right now that could ease that transition. For example, subsidies that go to the oil industry and income from the California cap-and-trade program could be used right now to start funding a just transition.
Jennifer Kropke says that Local 11 wants to train and deploy a workforce that is prepared for the new energy system; that the new energy system is already here; and that it is based on renewable energy. It has five “spokes”: maximizing local generation, local storage, energy efficiency, demand response, and transportation electrification. For an effective distributed renewable energy system they all must be integrated.
We take the position: we have to have an eye toward the future. We have to be involved in influencing what that next evolution of energy is. We have to have a seat at the table so we can influence what that looks like for our workers. If we are talking about renewable energy, that’s us. We’re the subject matter experts. This is what we do every day.
 Interview with Jennifer Kropke by Jeremy Brecher, May 30, 2017.