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San Francisco solar back on track?

March 25, 2011

State ruling overrules San Francisco’s controversial Sunset Reservoir decision, clearing the way to resurrect City solar projects

San Francisco – The so-called Greenest City in the Country has withered on the vine ever since a much-criticized decision to ban certain trade unions from working on municipal solar projects led to what is believed to be the nation’s first community protest and work stoppage at a solar installation and a nine-month delay in breaking ground on new solar projects.

Then Mayor Gavin Newsom poses on April 6, 2010, with the Sunset Reservoir solar installation crew before the laborers were disqualified. – Photo: Gavin Newsom on flickr
On March 15, the Bay Citizen broke the news of a California Department of Industrial Relations decision that appears to overrule the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement’s (OLSE) June 11, 2010, finding on the Sunset Reservoir solar project that only inside wireman electricians can perform work related to solar panels. The state ruled instead that solar installation “is clearly a multi-craft occupation.”

In a harsh rebuke to an OLSE decision that was called an unlawful step beyond the agency’s authority under City law and even earned criticism from City officials, the state determined that “the process of installing photovoltaic systems includes tasks that are already within the work processes of many established trades and is a part of those apprenticeship programs.”

Once it went online in late 2010, the 24,000 solar panels atop the Sunset Reservoir generated up to 5 megawatts of power daily. – Photo: SF Water
Supervisor Eric Mar, who was a leader in securing a community hiring agreement on the Sunset Reservoir project and who held a hearing to ensure that the project’s goal of employing at least 30 percent economically disadvantaged workers was met, has voiced his concern that the City’s decision meant that those workers were precluded from earning meaningful solar experience on the project.

Workers from environmental justice communities and historically marginalized neighborhoods have found their greatest success in securing opportunities in the solar industry through the Laborers Union. In fact, hundreds of the 25,000 panels currently operating at Sunset Reservoir were installed by general laborers from Laborers Local 261 before they were fired in the wake of the City’s decision.

Yesterday’s state ruling once again opens up jobs to those workers and workers from other trades, while acknowledging the consensus view that the final step of solar installation, connecting wiring from a combiner box to an inverter in order to bring the electricity generated into a home or business, is electrical work.

An aerial view of the Sunset Reservoir Solar Project - Photo: Fog City Journal
The call for OLSE to rescind its Sunset Reservoir decision, which has already cost the City tens of thousands of dollars, will no doubt resume in full force, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission appears to have no option but to put solar projects planned for City Hall, the Davies Symphony Hall, a Muni bus lot and Chinatown back out to bid in order to prevent further community protests and confusion that was caused among contractors told to bid according to the Sunset Reservoir decision.

The upside, however, is that these contracts can now include the City’s widely-hailed local hiring law authored by Supervisor John Avalos, which guarantees local community participation as San Francisco restarts its solar efforts, particularly as the CleanPowerSF program moves forward with plans to install over 100,000 panels in the City.

“The fundamental promise of the green economy is inclusion and opportunity for communities disproportionately polluted over the past several decades,” said Joshua Arce of Brightline Defense Project, whose efforts to promote environmental justice through targeted green job creation led to Brightline’s work with Supervisor Avalos on his landmark local hiring legislation. “The City broke that promise on Sunset Reservoir.”

To learn more, visit Brightline Defense Project and contact Joshua Arce at josh@brightlinedefense.org.


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