News Story

Is Erecting Wind Turbines ‘Essential’ During Epidemic Lockdown?

Union suggests company at work now with out-of-state workers

A statewide lockdown order to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus may not be stopping windmill builders, according a Michigan labor union.

The lockdown has forced other businesses not deemed essential under executive orders to close and millions of Michigan residents to remain in their homes. But the union suggests that one company erecting industrial wind turbines is at work here.

Local 324 of Michigan’s Operating Engineers union is upset that a Minnesota company has been contracted to build windmills in Isabella County. The union says the company is bringing in out-of-state workers, adding that the “project is proceeding.”

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March 24 state lockdown order, exceptions were allowed for “critical infrastructure workers,” including “some workers in the following sectors,” which include energy.

Whitmer provided clarification on her order when it was extended:

“Q: Is construction allowed under the executive order?”

“A: Some limited forms of construction are permissible, including construction to maintain and improve roads, bridges, telecommunications infrastructure, and public health infrastructure (such as the creation or expansion of hospitals or other medical facilities to provide or support the provision of necessary care during the emergency). Construction workers may also undertake projects that are necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation, and essential operations of a residence during the emergency, including projects immediately necessary to restore the habitability of a residence. Any non-emergency maintenance or improvements to residences are not permitted. In addition, a business may designate a construction firm under section 9(b) of the order to provide necessary support to the work of that business’s critical infrastructure workers.”

“Construction projects that do not meet these criteria cannot be started or progressed while the order is in effect. This includes any such projects that were already underway at the time the order was issued. For those projects, workers are permitted on site only to carry out ‘minimum basic operations’ under section 4(b) of the order. This work is limited to in-person tasks that are strictly necessary to preserve the current condition of the project while the order is in effect, such as putting in place temporary security and weatherization measures. All other in-person work on the project must cease until the restrictions of the order are lifted and normal operations resume.”

“All in-person construction work must be done in accordance with the mitigation measures required under section 10 of the order.”

The union, Whitmer’s office and Minnesota-based Fagen Inc., the project contractor, didn’t respond to emails seeking clarification about whether the project was still ongoing.

Michigan’s regional electric monopolies are planning to use wind turbines and solar collectors to replace coal-fueled electric generation facilities. Most generating facilities that depend on natural gas are slated for closure as well. The companies have contracted to purchase electricity generated by hundreds of turbine towers that are now operating in some part of the state, with hundreds of additional towers in the works.

In 2019, wind provided 4.7% of the state’s energy.

Government records do not breakdown specifically how much wind facilities contribute to state employment numbers. Jobs involved in constructing the turbines are the focus of the union’s complaint, but federal workforce data does not separate industrial wind facilities from other industries involved in manufacturing and construction. According to the U.S. Census, in Michigan there were just 21 people employed in 2018 in “wind electric power generation.”