By: Garret Bean, Vice President of Development, Land, Permitting and Community Relations
This is the first blog in a two-part series about our relationship with unions and the mutual benefits that our partnerships provide.
The utility-scale renewable projects that we build at sPower are critical elements of the global effort to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improve climate justice. In the same way, unions are crucial allies that enable sPower to deliver high-quality projects to our offtakers and host communities. In turn, companies like ours bring essential job opportunities to union workers in an unpredictable economy.
Union workers help us fight for cleaner communities
Case in point. I remember standing at the front of the room presenting our project in a tense city council hearing. I was convinced we had a valuable project that would uplift our host community but as I presented the project I listened to the murmurs from of an opposition group behind me. Then, opponents of our project spoke next. They derided the project and me, insisting on things I knew were not true. They asked how I could live with myself, told me I would pollute the aquifer underneath us, and did everything they could to inspire fear into the hearts of the decision makers and other community members.
I knew the hearing was bound to be challenging and that I had my work cut out for me. Somehow, I had to convey how diligently our team had worked to develop this solar project over the last four years, doing environmental assessments, collaborating with local leaders, meeting with concerned citizens and sitting down with the hard-working women and men who might have the opportunity to work on our project. I had to make our critics understand how, after all of our careful assessment and planning, we were confident that the project would provide hundreds of jobs, bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and help transition the community, local businesses and the utility to clean, renewable energy.
I continued to speak with honesty and integrity, but opposition appeared relentless. Their reluctance to any form of change and skepticism of outsiders like me manifested in questions, attacks, and testimonials against our project. Still, I knew we had established strong relationships with others sitting in that room.
Finally, one speaker took the stand with his two-year-old daughter asleep on his shoulder−it was now 11:00p.m. His shirt displayed a tightly clenched fist with electrical bolts propagating in all directions indicating his association with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 11. He explained that he grew up down the street and if it were not for the opportunity to have a solar career, he would not be able to put food on the table or obtain health benefits for his family. If not for solar, he may be forced to look for work 2.5 hours away, a commute that would prevent him from watching his daughter grow up. His heartfelt story was echoed by more than 40 local union members who stayed late into the night and praised the benefits that this project would bring and the legacy it would allow them to leave for their children.
At just before midnight, facts and a passionate workforce won out; the project was unanimously approved.
From outsider to partner
When we first step foot in a new area, it is imperative that we listen and understand challenges, aspirations, and dynamics of the community. Our union partners across California are great facilitators that take the time to share their story, introduce us to the roots of the community and often have a pulse on the individuals pioneering and driving change. The strong relationships we have with unions help us align ourselves with the decision makers to uplift the community both socially and from an economic standpoint.
We always make an effort to have an impact beyond our project footprint and reach out to those that might be underserved in our community and the youth. We have worked with IBEW and Ironworkers on employment programs like Helmets to Hardhats, MC3, Second Call, Youth Build and workforce centers that provide programs for our veterans, formerly incarcerated individuals, high school dropouts and the unemployed. But to fully support our communities, we develop much stronger bonds far beyond employment. sPower and the unions have banded together to support STEM programs, feed the hungry, fund after-school athletics and arts programs, support first responders and most recently, work with our political leaders in the response to COVID-19.
While we can do all the up-front analysis and preparation we want to determine that our project will have positive environmental and economic impacts, there are times we still face resistance. Leveraging the generational relationships established by unions helps sPower weave ourselves into the fabric of the community. Together, we shape and support local and state policy initiatives that will protect our environmental resources and afford our children opportunities that they would not have otherwise. When seeking our project approvals, we stand side by side with our union partners, knowing that we will have a lasting impact on the lives of the hundreds of people that show up to work and the youth that will become the leaders of tomorrow.