The construction workers who traveled to central Kansas to erect a wind farm for utility giant American Electric Power thought it would be a good job. Then they fell victim to the troubling side of the renewable power industry.
The nomadic band of workers had come to the Flat Ridge III project from Texas, Michigan and other states to install 62 turbines with towers as tall as 300 feet using cranes and heavy machinery. But after a few months the project broke down. Subcontractor C2 Logistics Solutions stopped paying the crew, causing workers to protest and walk off the job. Some quit in disgust.
At least 60 employees and possibly dozens more are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages, overtime and travel expenses, according to workers and a lawsuit against the company. “We still haven’t been paid, from the supervisors on down to the hands,” says David Saucedo, the former C2 general foreman who say he’s owed about $10,000. “You have to understand, I went late on my rent and car payments because I didn’t get paid.”
Flat Ridge III is a cautionary tale as renewable power balloons into a big industry that may eventually employ a few million mostly blue-collar workers. The Biden administration stresses the good-paying jobs that await Americans in selling its plans for a fast expansion of clean power to curb climate change. Marketers burnish this upbeat image, with photos on company websites of men and women smiling under hardhats amid sunshine and blue skies.
But that’s not the on-the-ground reality in many states today. Sure, skilled workers who hook up with established wind and solar contractors can make a solid middle-class living, particularly in a handful of states with strong labor practices like California, Minnesota and New York. Elsewhere, the influx of smaller operators and a lack of labor standards are spurring complaints about wage theft, starting pay as low as $10 an hour, scant training and safety lapses causing injuries and death, according to interviews with workers, union organizers, developers and state regulators.
“Every little construction company wants to get into wind, but they don’t know what they are doing and sometimes they don’t have the money,” says Saucedo, who has built wind farms for big and small firms for eight years. “I hear lots of complaints about small companies that don't pay, or pay late, and treat workers like dogs.”
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"But rather than minimizing and mitigating in densely populated Northeast states, Mr. Cummins says we should build out wind capacity in Great Plains states while developing offshore wind farms, so as to avoid these trade-offs all together."
“Avoidance is the most cost-effective way for conservation,” he says.
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