IBEW’s Solar Power in California
April 22, 2014
After Dan Sullivan topped out of San Diego Local 569’s apprenticeship program in 2001, he went back to the training center for the class that changed his life.
Sullivan was 23, married to his high school sweetheart and working for a contractor in his hometown when he took that class on small scale photovoltaics in 2002.
“A light bulb went off,” Sullivan said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is a massive opportunity.’”
Throughout his apprenticeship, California had been wracked by the failure of the state’s energy reforms. Each day brought new disruptions: brown-outs, price spikes, the bankruptcy of PG&E and, ultimately, the recall of the governor Gray Davis.
“Out of that came the state programs to spur renewables, and I went to my supervisor and said we had to get into solar installations,” Sullivan said. “He said no one would buy this [stuff.]”
With only $2,500, an old Ford Ranger pickup and some power tools, Sullivan put out his shingle. Twelve years later, Sullivan Solar is the largest solar-only contractor in southern California and the 10th fastest growing energy company in the country in 2013, according to Inc. Magazine.
“I’m not easily deterred,” he said.
Local 569 Business Manager Johnny Simpson said Sullivan’s success has been a high profile rejection of the claim that a unionized workforce hamstrings employers in fast changing industries.
“He’s been very aggressive and shown everybody that this is IBEW,” said Simpson, who also credited signatory Baker Electric for its residential solar work. “We are proud of his success. It is a good business and one we are very competitive in.”
Sullivan said being a union shop has set him up for success, from the management experience he gained working as a foreman to the large pool of skilled electricians he can call on.
“As we have grown, we have been able to bring on talented electricians when we need them and we can get them up to speed so much faster than some guy who was hanging dry wall last week and now wants to be an electrician,” Sullivan said.
The skill of his workforce has been central to his marketing strategy as well.
“Too many contractors think price is all that matters, but not everyone is a Wal-Mart shopper. Really, most aren’t, but I knew that I would still need the most compelling presentation customers had ever seen to teach them what quality meant and why it was important,” Sullivan said. “I was using my knowledge as a journeyman inside wireman as a sign of quality.”
In many parts of the country, this work has been dominated by nonunion contractors, many attached to new companies like Solar City and Sun Run that function primarily as financial operators, leasing cookie-cutter solar systems to homeowners, and then subcontracting installation.
The price of solar panels has been falling precipitously in recent years—down 50 percent last year alone, according to the MIT Technology Review—and panels now make up only 20 percent of a solar system’s total cost. Solar leasing companies are now at the forefront of an effort to reduce installation costs by integrating panels, inverters and rack systems and then using unqualified electrical workers to snap them together.
Cutting out high-skilled labor may increase a company’s profits, Sullivan said, but it comes at a high price down the road, one most often borne by the homeowners.
Local 569 member Mike DeCarli, a residential project manager for Sullivan Solar, says he has seen it out on jobs many times before. Panels that aren’t installed flat or oriented correctly underperform. Systems that are designed to be easy to install are more complex, less durable and harder to repair. Quickie installations can damage the roof or worse. And without sufficient electrical experience, they simply won’t understand what can wrong or what to do if it does.
“These plug-and-play systems are nice because they are quick, but they are all made for some average roof and there is no such thing. There are no standard layouts; every roof is different,” DeCarli said. “Sometimes simple things are better. They last longer. When you are building something to last 50 years, the small things –wire management, proper wire choices, how the conduit runs—they really matter.”
Sullivan says that message has resonated with customers of all kinds, from the early adopters with long hair and Birkenstocks to today’s customers who are often much more focused on the green in their pocket.
“I’m not losing sleep over the competition. They may have a huge heap of cash and an army of unskilled labor but they aren’t the top solar company around here. We are,” he said. “If we are at the table, we win.”