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Lineman Shortage Continues, Israeli Police Refuse To Secure Golan Wind Project
A pair of items as I rebound from vacation
Since I started publishing here on Substack last December, I’ve focused on long-form reporting. Most of my pieces have been about 2,000 words and have looked at a single issue. But other Substack writers, including my friends Roger Pielke Jr., and Michael Shellenberger, are publishing shorter pieces that include several news items. I’m trying that format here with two items. I will do more posts like this in the future. Also, a quick update: Lorin and I took the last two weeks off. We celebrated Michael and Bethany’s wedding in Denver (it was epic!) last week and then spent a few days recovering in New Mexico. We are now back in the Austin heat and are glad to be home.
Coops Losing Linemen To IOUs
The shortage of skilled electric linemen has become so acute that investor-owned utilities are poaching linemen from rural cooperatives. That’s according to cooperative leaders I spoke to last month at the Kentucky Electric Cooperatives meeting in Louisville. Doug Miller, the vice president of statewide services at Ohio's Electric Cooperatives said that investor-owned utilities were recruiting experienced linemen from coops and were offering them $10 to $20 more per hour. In addition, Miller said they were offering bonuses of up to $5,000 for every lineman they brought with them.
Yesterday, I talked to Miller again. Doug has worked for electric coops for 33 years “This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said. The investor-owned utilities are “outbidding us.”
I mentioned the lineman shortage in May in my article “47,000 Gigawatt-Miles From Nowhere.” I noted that Pike Electric, a North Carolina-based company that does engineering, construction, and maintenance for electric utilities, had several hundred job openings, including dozens of openings for linemen and workers involved in “electric overhead construction.” Yesterday, I searched Pike’s career page again. It turned up 180 openings for linemen, 43 for foremen, and dozens of other openings for engineers, truck drivers, and equipment operators.
The ongoing shortage of skilled electrical workers matters for three reasons. First and foremost: they are essential workers. Linemen don’t get the same love that doctors, cops, and firemen get. But they are perhaps the most important workers in modern society. They are the ones who assure the reliability of the grid. They are the ones who go out in all kinds of weather, at all hours of the day and night, to make sure the juice keeps flowing. Second, the shortage of linemen is occurring at the same time that utilities are spending tens of billions of dollars to maintain their existing, aging, electrical systems, and try to prepare for the new loads that could come from the deployment of electric vehicles and the insane “electrify everything” push. Third, without linemen, there is no way to achieve the massive expansions of the electric grid that are being promoted by academics and climate activists. Academics from Princeton, Stanford, and other elite schools have repeatedly touted models claiming we can run our economy almost exclusively on renewable energy. But those models require expanding the electric grid at rates that have never been achieved. Scenarios laid out in a Princeton study that has garnered fawning attention in legacy media outlets, require doubling or tripling the size of the high-voltage transmission grid in a decade or two.
That will not happen. There are many reasons why it won’t happen, including land-use conflicts and supply chain issues. But the most obvious reason is that we simply don’t have enough linemen.
During the Louisville meeting, Caleb Jones, the CEO of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, said that one coop in his state lost six linemen in a single week to investor-owned utilities. Jones and Miller made clear that the lineman shortage is particularly problematic for coops because they can’t pay as much as the IOUs. Miller said one big utility recently gave their linemen a 13% pay increase. “Our coops can’t do that,” he said. “A generous increase would have been 3 or 4%.”
The U.S. has some 900 electric coops that serve about 42 million people in 48 states. They are living remnants of The New Deal and are a critical part of the U.S. electric grid. Ohio has 24 coops, each of which has about 13,000 meters. Each coop employs 10 or 12 linemen. The challenge, Miller said, is the “imbalance of experience to inexperience.” That is, there are too many young linemen and not enough experienced ones. His organization has set up a training program for new linemen but the incoming apprentices are not enough to make up for the retirements and departures of the older, more-experienced linemen. Add in the poaching by the big utilities, Miller said, and it’s clear that the coops are facing a “serious problem. And…it’s getting worse.”
A final point: The shortage of linemen is occurring at the same time the U.S. is facing a labor crunch. A few weeks ago, Randy Zook, the CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, told me that his state currently has an unemployment rate of 2.6% and that there are roughly 75,000 jobs open in Arkansas. “We have two jobs for anyone who wants to work,” Zook said. The situation in Arkansas may be unique, but it is indicative of a broader decline in the size of the U.S. workforce, and the growing shortage of workers who are willing (and able) to turn wrenches.
Last November, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said that the current labor force has about 3.5 million fewer workers than it did before the pandemic. Powell noted that the shortfall:
reflects both lower-than-expected population growth and a lower labor force participation rate. Participation dropped sharply at the onset of the pandemic because of many factors, including sickness, caregiving, and fear of infection. Many forecasters expected that participation would move back up fairly quickly as the pandemic faded. And for workers in their prime working years, it mostly has. Overall participation, however, remains well below pre-pandemic trends.
On September 1, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the unemployment rate in the U.S. is about 3.8%. That’s close to 50-year lows. As Powell pointed out last November, the number of job openings continues to exceed the number of available workers. That’s true for electric linemen and there’s every reason to expect the shortage will continue.
Last month, in “Massive Riots, Renewable Resentments,” I reported on the June riots by members of the Druze community in the Golan Heights against a wind project. After the riots subsided, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced what was called a “temporary halt” to the wind project. But construction has not resumed despite his promise that the company developing the project, Energix, could resume work by August 1.
Why hasn’t worked restarted? According to the Jerusalem Post, “The lack of resumption is due to the fact that the Israeli Police, whom Netanyahu said would oversee security for the work, did not agree to the work.” The media outlet noted that the protests against the wind project “rocked the region” and that the riots “resulted in one officer being shot and another injured.”
The article, published late last month, went on to quote Supreme Druze Council head Raad Sha’anan who said there are some 40,000 houses in the Druze sector, “almost a third of them without a building permit, without legal electrical infrastructure, and without water, and road infrastructure...the story of the turbines comes as if this is further proof they want to harm the Druze community.”
As I noted last month, the mayor of the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel, Rafik Halabi, told several Hebrew media outlets that the protests against the wind project could turn into an “intifada,” the term used for two major, and deadly, conflicts between Palestinians and the Israelis. Other factors are also likely at play. Netanyahu faces a myriad of political challenges. He doesn’t need any more controversy. And the refusal by the Israeli Police to provide security indicates their desire to avoid more violence.
One other aspect is one I garnered from my recent interview with Yonatan Dubi, a physicist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Yoni explained that the Golan region is one of the few places with good wind resources in Israel. Given that Israel has scant wind energy development potential, he told me it makes political sense to let the project die rather than inflame more conflict with the Druze, who have inhabited the Golan for generations. My full discussion with Yoni will be released soon on the Power Hungry Podcast.
The battle over the wind project in the Golan Heights has been ignored by the American press. Despite the lack of coverage, the refusal of the Druze community to accept the wind project shows, yet again, the split between urban voters (who like the idea of wind and solar) and rural landowners who are resisting the landscape-destroying sprawl that comes with weather-dependent renewables.
Indeed, the conflict in the Golan doesn’t fit the narrative about “clean” energy. But the June riots provide yet another example of wind energy’s incurable problem: it requires too much land. And that fact will not change no matter how much spin is applied by elite academics, the NGO-corporate-industrial-climate complex, and their many allies in the legacy media.