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IBEW Peaks in the Desert

Unions contribute to one of the largest battery stroage projects ever

In the Southern California desert, the Desert Peak Energy Storage site has 459 identical shipping containers stacked floor to ceiling with lithium-ion batteries, enough to provide power to more than 265,000 homes for up to four hours.

John Bzdawka, the Sixth District Business Development international representative, helped relay a description of the project after being invited there by Cupertino Electric, one of the IBEW's largest signatories. Below are some excerpts from Bzdawka's article for IBEW.

This 400-megawatt project, built by Riverside Local 440, will be the largest battery storage facility in the country, replacing the Crimson Energy Storage project, also built by 440, which claimed the record at 350 MW when it opened in October.

Nearly all of the 5,000 MW of installed grid-scale storage in the U.S. can be found in Local 440's jurisdiction or that of its neighbors, San Bernardino Local 477, Bakersfield Local 428, Fresno Local 100 and San Diego Local 569.

"This Southern California land is the perfect place for storage because it is close to load — power demand — and plenty of sun and wind and land to site it," Bzdawka said. "But projects in other places that were not viable even just a year ago now look like no-brainers. States are demanding it, and the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are helping it. This work is coming. It's ours if we can man it."

The impact storage can have on IBEW jobs can't be overstated, said Local 440 Business Manager Jim Rush.

Over the last two years, the local has worked on six projects larger than 100 megawatts. Two more are breaking ground this year, including a 640-megawatt project that will be the next record holder when it opens, Rush said.

Primarily in response to the growth in renewable generation, Southern California locals have added well over a thousand new members over the last decade. Local 440 alone has doubled to 1,400 members. And, Mitrosky said, many clean energy projects will combine generation and storage, increasing labor demand for each new project.

"This is a global transformation, not just a California one. Rapid technological changes are driving investment and federal law is driving it toward unions," she said. "If you look at it comprehensively, at generation and transmission, border to border, how many new members do we need to deliver on this? Double? Triple? When have we ever had a conversation like we are having today?"

The IBEW's Work

More than 135 members of Local 440 worked on the $500 million project. Like many projects last year, it was delayed, and the nine-month timeline was ultimately crammed into six, with one shift turning into two.

"This is the largest-capacity project built in a single phase," said site superintendent Jimmy Sauer. "It'll carry that torch for a few more months."

This is Sauer's eighth storage project over 100 MW and third over 300 MW, he said, and he has noticed a change in the work over the years.

"The first projects were very labor-intensive because we had to stack the batteries ourselves. Now they come stacked in containers," he said. But total man-hours haven't changed dramatically because the size of the projects keeps growing. There were other crafts, the operators and laborers, but, Rush said, even though most of the work is underground, the vast majority is the IBEW's.

"Easily 90% is our work: running underground conduit, pulling wire, running optical cable for data and controls, building the substation, and installing the DC feeders. It's not up for conversation," Rush said. "There's more work for us in the storage than in the straight solar installation."

Storage is so essential because of an innate challenge of renewable generation: The sun sets every day at an inconvenient time.

As renewable production flags, most people are getting home. Air conditioners blast. More and more electric vehicles fresh from their evening commute will be plugged in. Screens come on, and so do dishwashers and water heaters.

Daylight-driven cheap power and peak demand pass each other like two shifts in a factory. Meeting demand will only get more challenging as renewables take over more generation from always-on but carbon-intensive generation like coal and natural gas.

California required the two main utilities, PG&E in the north and SoCal Edison in the south, to procure thousands of megawatts of storage in the last half decade, driving demand.

Bzdawka said this combination the tax incentives, utility mandates, technical grid demands and load shifting is no longer unique to California.

"They brought us there because they are going to be building this everywhere," he said. "Indiana and the Mojave Desert don't have a lot in common yet. But that's about to change."

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