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NC’s new energy economy: temporary, nomadic work

Their work experience includes fast food, pest control, nursing homes, state government, Wal-Mart, military service and a stint in prison. Some are fresh out of school and have no work history at all.

This is North Carolina’s new solar workforce – the installers who assemble the racks and mounts for solar panels that are sprouting in vacant fields throughout the state.

Their jobs were thought to have been saved last week when a state House committee rejected a proposal to end the state’s renewable energy program, which requires electric utilities to buy the power output from solar farms and other renewable generators.

But some lawmakers have vowed to continue efforts to phase out the program, casting into doubt the long-term prospects for work building solar farms and wind farms. The House bill is back, and on Wednesday, a companion bill in the Senate was approved in committee.

North Carolina’s energy policy, adopted in 2007, has rapidly catapulted the state to the nation’s fifth-ranking developer of solar power. The state’s leading solar developer, Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar, describes itself as one of the nation’s biggest solar developers.

The 50-employee company expects to be deploying about 900 field workers this summer as it boosts solar farm installation. The contractor crews follow the work from job site to job site, some commuting as much as two hours each way and a handful staying in motels during the week.

“I moved here for this job,” said Rickey Carr, 55, an equipment operator who moved to Dunn a year ago from Woodbridge, Va., where he was self-employed in the home-improvement trade, which tanked during the recession. “This will no doubt allow me the experience of heavy equipment and electrical, on a commercial level.”

The debate over the state’s energy future is as much about the economy as it is about the environment, hinging on job creation as the primary justification for promoting state energy policies. But in this debate, not all jobs are considered equal.

The ideological divide pits advocates for solar farms and other clean renewables versus backers of shale gas exploration, commonly referred to as fracking. Both sides claim maximum economic benefits and minimum environmental risks.

Still, the potential for jobs doesn’t necessarily match up with the talking points. Under typical scenarios for North Carolina’s emerging energy landscape, solar farms, wind projects and fracking operations would each generate several hundred temporary jobs on average over several years, according to interviews and studies of North Carolina’s economic potential from energy development.

The job characteristics differ across industry, however, and are not universally welcome.

Republican Rep. Mike Hager, who has been pushing legislation to end the state’s renewables mandate, questions the value of green jobs created by state policy. Hager wants to repeal the 2007 energy law because solar power and other renewable electricity can cost more than traditional electricity, which he says makes North Carolina less attractive to business.

“The idea is, what jobs expand the economy versus what jobs contract the economy,” Hager, who represents Burke and Rutherford counties, said in reference to solar farms and wind farms.

Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, countered that electric utilities in North Carolina are regulated monopolies, not free-market entities, and policy changes are the surest way to introduce a measure of competition.

“It’s a false narrative to claim only this industry is getting subsidies,” she said. “Then you talk about all the other benefits you get, like clean air.”

Green jobs

Strata Solar field work is performed mostly by local residents. Workers can be trained in a few hours or a few days and are paid $12 an hour on average. Fracking, and to a lesser extent wind farms, can pay significantly more for skilled labor but also require trained specialists to be brought in from out of state to do much of the work.

In each case, most of the direct benefits would be short-lived. After construction and installation is complete and the crews move on, wind, solar and fracking projects would leave behind skeletal crews for monitoring and maintenance.

“The large volume of activity is certainly during the drilling and completion phase of the operation,” said Steve Heron, South region exploration manager for Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas.

Only offshore oil drilling would generate sufficient economic activity to create jobs numbering in the many thousands, according to an analysis by N.C. State University economist Michael Walden, released in April and titled “The Economic Potential from Developing North Carolina’s On-Shore and Off-Shore Energy Resources.” But offshore drilling also is not imminent, being dependent on changes in long-standing federal policy that currently restricts energy exploration in ocean waters.

All forms of energy development could result in longer-term indirect economic benefits. Such projects generate rental, lease and royalty income for property owners, and tax revenue for local governments. They would also generate spending on equipment, supplies, food and lodging.

Shale gas exploration, which produces an abundance of relatively low-cost fuel, could drive a resurgence in local manufacturing that would long outlast the temporary burst of drilling and exploration activity.

Ditto for renewables.

One example: solar bracket-and-mount manufacturer Schletter’s decision last year to move its U.S. headquarters to Shelby from Arizona and to create 305 jobs here.

“We learned during our conversations that the state … is very eager to provide a sustainable ground for renewable energy,” said Angela Kliever, Schletter’s vice president for sales and marketing. “Large ground-mount installations are booming in the state, while there are far less residential and midsize commercial projects occurring.”

858 fracking jobs

Job projections for each industry are notoriously imprecise because they depend on numerous factors and variable conditions. The limiting factors for shale gas exploration, for example, are depressed natural gas prices and North Carolina’s relatively small gas-rich zone, currently estimated to span only several counties.

Under current conditions, North Carolina would accommodate 368 wells and an average of 387 jobs a year over seven years, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The jobs would peak at 858, the agency said in a report last year.

Heron estimates that drilling 300 to 400 wells would generate a roughly equal amount of jobs on an annual average as nomadic crews advanced from worksite to worksite every 30 days or so. His estimate matches up with the DENR projection.

He noted that each horizontal well costs about $5 million to drill, resulting in an investment of $2 billion for 400 wells to cover the costs of labor, fuel, lodging, steel, cement and other supplies.

At least two-thirds of the workers – engineers, company men, mud loggers, drillers, derrick hands, tool pushers – would come in from out of state, Heron said, but there would be plenty of work for local handymen, electricians, truckers, asphalt pavers, deck hands, surveyors, rail yard workers and cement-pouring operations.

A drilling project of that size would require a permanent crew numbering about 36 people to monitor the wells, gauges, valves, tanks, pipes, pads and access roads.

Heron stressed that all bets would be off if natural gas prices rise steeply and North Carolina’s natural gas deposits are shown to exceed preliminary estimates, as has happened with other shale gas regions, including the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and Bakken in North Dakota.

Fracking involves pumping water and chemicals underground to break up shale rock formations and release the natural gas trapped inside. It is a heavy industrial activity that would bring its own disruptions.

Walden’s computer analysis shows fracking also could result in undesirable side effects: The job gains could be offset by job losses. Possible groundwater contamination and other adverse consequences from industrial activity would depreciate local housing values between 3 percent and 22 percent, Walden’s computer analysis shows. That economic damage would lead to reductions in spending, which, in turn, could result in a corresponding loss of 320 to 2,350 jobs in the local economy, his analysis concludes.

Wind farm work

The economic benefits of wind farm development would follow a similar bell-curve pattern. Paul Copleman, a spokesman for the Iberdrola wind developer, said that a proposed 300-megawatt Desert Wind project in Eastern North Carolina would likely produce similar economic activity as a 304-megawatt wind farm recently completed in Ohio.

The $600 million Ohio project has been generating electricity for about a year. It peaked at more than 1,200 workers, with an average of 500-plus workers over an 18-month construction period, Copleman said.

Nearly 60 percent of time logged was attributed to Ohio residents for tasks ranging from heavy-equipment operators to fencing, drainage and road building.

A wind farm of that size, comprising about 150 turbines, would require a permanent team of 15 to 20 people for monitoring and maintenance, Copleman said.

Solar Farms, by comparison, can operate for weeks at a time through remote monitoring without human intervention.

Strata Solar currently has 450 assemblers and installers at various sites, with plans to double the amount of contractors to handle the workload this summer. The company has enough projects in the pipeline to employ hundreds of workers through 2018, company spokesman Blair Schoof said.

One of the projects under construction now is a 5-megawatt solar farm in Wayne County, where Rickey Carr is one of about 50 contractors. The project will number 26,600 solar panels on 67 acres of a former cotton field where workers tread on tufts of cotton that are still attached to broken stalks.

Throughout the day, the field resonates with metallic staccato bursts of power tools tightening bolts on solar mounts. Just last week, a Strata Solar contractor caught an 8-foot-long snake and displayed it for an impromptu iPhone photo op.

Workers assemble metal brackets and attach frames to the upright stanchions that are pounded up to 9 feet deep in the ground. In the coming weeks, the Wayne County project will peak at about 90 contractors, project superintendent Hugh Wheeler said.

The temporary contractors work in racking, moduling, panel installation, operating equipment and electrical capacities. Their pay typically ranges between $9 and $18 an hour, depending on responsibility and experience, Wheeler said.

Leroy Daise Jr., 33, is a racking foreman and quality-control agent, working his fifth Strata Solar project in the past 11 months. He previously worked in termite control and as a dietary aide in a nursing home, after putting in 16 years as a brick mason and carpentry worker.

“This job right here is a blessing for me,” Daise said. “It’s building me up a better résumé.”

Denine Locklear, 45, is working her fourth Strata Solar site since September. A former transportation coordinator for the Robeson County government, she has a “crew lead” position and has seen her solar contractor wage increase from $10 an hour to $11 an hour.

This is the ninth Strata Solar site that Carr has worked in the past year. He acknowledged it bothered him initially that the work is temporary and will end at some point when solar farm development winds down.

But he made his peace with those conditions because he concluded that long-term employment is a thing of the past.

“All jobs are pretty much that way now,” Carr said. “When the ax falls, it’ll take who it will.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932
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