March 21, 2016
By Dave Lazzarino
Green energy is finding champions in Alberta oil and gas workers, and the provincial government says it’s willing to listen to what they have to say.
A company called Iron & Earth is asking the provincial government to help support its Solar Skills campaign, a project that aims to train 1,000 electricians from the oilsands sector to install solar panels on 100 public buildings, making their skills marketable across the energy sector.
“Now is definitely the time to be launching this organization,” said Iron & Earth founder Lliam Hildebrand, who came up with the idea during lunchtime discussions with fellow oil workers who felt oil and gas tradespeople could become the workforce behind Alberta’s renewable energy sector.
“My dream is that one day I’ll be able to go to my union hall and have a renewable energy job to choose from.”
Each installation, including the cost of training, could cost up to $80,000, meaning the company will have to raise about $8 million to do all 100 sites. Hildebrand said all the money doesn’t have to come from the province.
“Everybody that I work with gets it. They realize that our skills are transferable, but it just hasn’t been a reality for us,” said the journeyman welder and steel fabricator who has spent the past six years working in Alberta’s oilsands.
Dave Pearson, who owns an Edmonton solar installation company, said it is difficult to find electricians trained to safely install solar panels.
“It’s a niche in itself. For the government to possibly fund training for this, that would be a huge help for companies like mine,” said Pearson, adding the demand isn’t yet enough to sustain his company, but believes the injection of public funds will get the ball rolling.
He also predicted the renewable industry is set to “explode,” adding “it’s better to be ready.” Hildebrand said it could eventually bring down the price point of solar to be more in line with oil and gas and help increase demand.
Ken MacKenzie, business agent with Local 424 of the International Brotherhood of Election Workers Union in Edmonton, said the move is timely.
The union’s training centre runs the five-day courses to train solar installers. MacKenzie said they’ve already put 1,000 people through it.
“The demand is going to continue to grow, for sure,” MacKenzie said, adding employment numbers are hard to come by for electricians because many of those recently laid off have found work in other areas, but it’s likely more than 1,000.
Staff from the province’s Ministry of Environment and Parks have agreed to meet with company representatives, but whether it will offer funding for the project or school sites on which to install the solar panels hasn’t been decided.
Minister Shannon Phillips said she looks forward to hearing what the project could offer.
“We know that if we transition from coal, there will be a number of new job opportunities through diversification, so we welcome that,” Phillips said.
The company hopes to complete its first project by this fall, and is optimistic 100 sites will be done by 2019. It also wants to use the success of the solar pilot to delve into other renewable areas including wind, geothermal and biomass energy.
Josehp Bascu, director at Iron & Earth, said the goal isn’t to transition from oil and gas, but to optimize the labour potential of tradespeople in all areas of energy production.
“We’re going to create the training and then put those people to work,” said Bascu, who explained many alternate energy sources, such as biomass and geothermal, have the same processes and basic machinery to produce the electricity, so the fuel source doesn’t matter as much to the tradespeople. For them, he said, it’s more important to have a job.
“We really don’t care about the product that’s going through it, we just want to build it,” he said. “We’re not looking to eliminate anything, we’re looking to incorporate this into our work scope so that we can use another resource.”
Phillips has a similar perspective.
“This is not a zero-sum game, this is about diversification of the economy, which this government has signalled that we are very committed to with a $500-million investment in various petrochemical efforts,” she said
Phillips said the government will have more to say about distributed generation — using school sites for panels, for example — when they come through on a throne speech promise of developing Energy Efficiency Alberta, an agency aimed at helping individuals, families and business reduce their carbon footprint.
Bascu said he understands that most of the hardware, such as solar panels, is manufactured overseas. But he said a more successful local energy industry could change that.
“Once the projects start to happen, you’re going to see manufacturing companies come out of the woodwork where there’s money,” he said. “Once it starts coming, then you’re going to see a lot less looking outside the country and you’re going to see more localized start to come.”