Door County, Wisconsin


A mixer for an anaerobic digester system at a farm in Waterloo.      Photo: Joe Koshollek / For the Journal Sentinel



Thomas Content , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 9:39 p.m. CDT October 18, 2016

Wisconsin energy regulators are considering a move to expand funding for broadband internet services via fees collected on monthly electric and natural gas bills.

The move is being contemplated, the state Public Service Commission says, with an eye toward expanding the reach of the state’s Focus on Energy program in rural parts of the state.

The PSC said that based on a preliminary review, utility customers in rural Wisconsin don’t participate in the Focus on Energy program as much as those in urban areas. Rural areas also are served by fewer broadband providers, the agency said.

The agency also said it’s concerned about the ability of the Focus on Energy program to market its programs in areas with “insufficient access to high-speed internet that could help support effective online advertising and social media campaigns.”

But some critics of the move are skeptical of the linkage between expanding broadband service and improved efforts to help utility customers save on their energy bills. Instead, they see the move as a way to find a source of funding, this time from energy utility customers, for broadband expansion.

“I want to challenge the idea that broadband will necessarily increase participation in Focus on Energy programs,” said Kathy Kuntz, a former administrator of the Focus program. “I support the premise that everyone should have access to broadband, but broadband services do not prompt energy efficiency.”

Critics fear that the PSC would shift dollars from Focus on Energy’s core missions — to help cut utility customers’ energy use and boost deployment of small renewable energy systems — in order to deploy those dollars for other purposes.

The PSC solicited input on how it should proceed and received comments from about two dozen organizations, from utilities to energy-efficiency advocates and environmental groups.

Some utilities responded that they would like to see Focus dollars spent the way they have been, with Madison Gas and Electric Co. saying “the test” for using Focus dollars “should be maximizing energy savings statewide. MGE believes the funds should not be used in any way that would diminish the opportunities customers have for participating in Focus energy efficiency and renewable programming.”

However, Alliant Energy Corp. weighed in, favoring the initiative. “We support the commission’s intent to examine how greater access to broadband services could improve rural electric customers’ participation in the statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource programs,” the Madison-based utility said.

Supporters of continuing to fund energy-saving and renewable energy programs said studies have shown it to be cost-effective. The Focus on Energy program, which funds discounts on energy-saving light bulbs as well and other moves to make homes and businesses more efficient, currently spends about $92 million a year and studies have shown has consistently delivered a payback of at least three times that, or at least $3 returned for every $1 invested.

“We do not support using Focus on Energy funding for purposes other than energy efficiency and renewable energy,” the clean energy group RePower Madison said.

According to the PSC, about $3.2 million is collected from rural parts of the state for Focus, and several organizations urged the commission to cap any funding for rural customers at that amount. Expanding the number of cooperatives that participate in Focus would be another way to boost participation, the PSC and others agreed.

Renewable energy organizations and companies expressed concern that the PSC would fund a broadband initiative but not fund renewable energy projects the way it has in recent years. Noting high demand for grants that Focus issued in recent years, Renew Wisconsin urged the commission to support allocating $5 million in 2017 and $5 million in 2018 for renewable energy grants. Renew also said it would support increased investment by Focus in dairy-farm manure digesters that convert cow manure into energy.

Efforts to cut energy use help the state delay the need for new power plants, supporters of energy efficiency say. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a key challenge in Wisconsin is reduced funding for Focus on Energy, after a bill that cut funding by $7.2 million.

Compared with four nearby states, Wisconsin is investing less than half as much in energy efficiency, said Seth Nowak of ACEEE. “In this context, it is crucial that money already collected by utilities on customer bills and by electric co-ops intended for Focus be used for their intended purposes, primarily energy efficiency programs,” he said.

The Focus on Energy and other fees collected on utility customers’ bills have been used to fund non-energy activities in the past — moves that prompted the Legislature to pass a bill banning budgetary transfers from Focus on Energy fees.

Past transfers include funding that went into the state’s general fund, funded the state W-2 “welfare-to-work” program, and helped pay salaries for district attorneys around the state:

From 2002 to 2007, during the administrations of Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, funds collected for energy efficiency programs were used for municipal aid payments, the general fund and the Wisconsin Works, or W-2 program. Total amount transferred: $110.9 million.
After the Legislature stopped that practice, from 2007 to 2011 the state transferred funds from a weatherization and energy efficiency program for low-income residents to the W-2 program. Total amount transferred: $36.7 million.
When the Legislature stopped that transfer, it then enacted a special charge on utility bills that collected revenue to pay for the salaries and benefits of prosecutors in district attorney’s offices across Wisconsin. Total amount transferred: $18.3 million.

The PSC is scheduled to discuss the issue at its meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday in Madison.

Source: Focus on Energy $ –> Broadband ?


For more information on Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy Program please visit: Focus on Energy

Visitor looks at underside components of Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle at the Washington Auto Show in Washington

A visitor looks at the underside components of a Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle at the Washington Auto Show in Washington January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron – RTX24Z1R

Hydrogen fuel cell cars could help solve the global warming crisis, but nobody wants to buy them. Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Toyota Mirai, Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell car, calls it a “chicken or the egg” problem: no one wants to purchase hydrogen cars because there are no hydrogen fuel stations, and nobody wants to build hydrogen fuel stations because there are no hydrogen cars.

But Toyota thinks it may have found a solution. For unlimited clean energy, it’s turning to one of the dirtiest places there is: the toilet.

In Fukuoka, Japan, the automaker is converting human waste into hydrogen to fuel the Mirai. The process is pretty simple. At a wastewater treatment plant, like the Fukuoka City Central Water Processing Plant, sewage is separated into liquid and solid waste. The solid waste, called sewage sludge, is exactly what it sounds like: a foul-smelling, brown lump. Most sewage sludge is thrown in landfills.

But in Fukuoka, microorganisms are added to the mix. These microorganisms break down the solid waste, creating biogas, about 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide. Then, workers filter out the CO₂ and add water vapor, which creates hydrogen and more CO₂. They extract the CO₂ again, and voila: pure hydrogen.

“It’s not a new or advanced technology,” says Marc Melaina, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver. “In India, they have loads of biogas plants in villages and such that are just part of their energy infrastructure.”

If Tanaka has his way, Japan and the U.S. will soon follow suit. Currently, the Fukuoka plant produces 300 kilograms of hydrogen per day, enough to fuel 65 Mirai vehicles, Tanaka says. If all the biogas produced by the plant were converted to hydrogen, that number would jump to 600 cars per day. It’s a far cry from enough to achieve his goal of a “hydrogen society” that has no need whatsoever for fossil fuels, but it’s a good first step. Ideally, the process would be implemented in a scaled-up fashion at the wastewater processing plants of the world’s biggest cities.

Using wastewater is arguably the greenest way to make hydrogen, especially for big cities, where there are a lot of people who produce a lot of sewage, and most of that sewage, after it’s been treated, is discarded. In the case of sewage sludge, it’s usually dumped in landfills, and in the case of biogas it’s most often burnt. In other words, there’s no downside to using it to produce hydrogen instead. “They have to treat the water, and biogas is a natural byproduct of that process,” Melaina says. “You can burn it, you can turn it into electricity or you can turn it into hydrogen.”

Making hydrogen from sewage is “probably one of the most economical ways down the line because you’re producing so much from a waste product,” says Bill Elrick, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

Biogas, which is renewable, is also a better source of hydrogen than natural gas, which is where we get most of our hydrogen today. “Biogas itself is really chemically almost identical to natural gas. If you clean it up and take out the impurities it’s basically methane,” Melaina says.

Compared to other zero-emissions vehicles, like electric battery cars, hydrogen vehicles also stand the best chance at convincing consumers to give up their gas-guzzlers, says Joan Ogden, co-director of Hydrogen Pathways Program at UC Davis. That’s because, behaviorally, they’re a lot like the gasoline cars we’re used to. ”Fuel cell cars do offer you things that battery cars can’t in terms of the ease of use, in terms of fast refueling time, and in terms of a longer range and a bigger car,” she says. And, she says, hydrogen vehicles should be “within a few thousand dollars of gasoline cars within the next 10 years.”

Biogas could help solve hydrogen’s “chicken or the egg” problem. “There’s only some few hundred Mirais in the state of California right now,” Elrick says. “That’s not enough to turn it into a full business from Toyota’s perspective or the energy producers’ perspectives.”

Japanese and American consumers are accustomed to being able to go to any gas station and buy fuel to power their cars. Outside of a few major cities in Japan, hydrogen car drivers can’t do that. In California, there are around 20 hydrogen refueling stations, but almost all of them are in or around Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area. Currently, there’s exactly one hydrogen refueling station between those two cities, in Harris Ranch, California. Given that the Mirai has a range of about 312 miles, long road trips are currently out of the question.

But where there’s poop there’s people, which is what makes a plant like the one in Fukuoka so attractive. If every town with a sewage treatment plant also had a hydrogen production facility, supplying hydrogen to far-flung locales would become trivially easy.
For now, though, it’s still a waiting game: waiting on more stations to be built, and waiting for consumer demand for zero-emissions vehicles to take off. But Toyota is hoping that its toilet-to-tank scheme might reduce those wait times, just a bit.

Original Article : Toyota is using sewage sludge to power its new electric car



SourceClimate Change could Cut the World’s Coffee Supply in Half

As temperatures rise and weather patterns become more erratic around the world, coffee production is beginning to decline.

By the mid-21st century, coffee production could be halved, with some countries entirely losing their ability to grow the plant, according to a new report by the Climate Institute. Some years could see catastrophic dips in coffee levels. Wild varieties of the plant, meanwhile, could disappear altogether, reducing the complexity and flavor of the coffee available for purchase.

“Consumers are likely to face supply shortages, impacts on flavor and aromas, and rising prices,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute, in a press release.

It’s a possibility that has sent major coffee brands reeling to find solutions and safeguards. Billions of dollars in revenue are on the line.

“We have a cloud hovering over our head,” said Mario Cerutti from Lavazza told a conference in 2015. “It’s dramatically serious. Climate change can have a significant adverse effect in the short term. It’s no longer about the future; it’s the present.”

For the 120 million people in low-income countries who depend on coffee production for their livelihoods, the prospect is far more dire.

Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries and is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. 120 million people in low-income countries make their livelihoods through coffee production.

Globally, more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day.

Making sure coffee stays viable is, to the say the least, something a lot of people are counting on.

Like all plants, coffee grows best in certain conditions: high altitude, rich soil, moderate temperature, shady areas.

Coffee primarily thrives in “The Bean Belt,” an area that stretches across the equator.

Many countries in this zone are being pummelled by climate change. And many of these countries are unable to fully cope with the environmental changes.

Rising temperatures mean that coffee plants can become heat-stressed and the life spans of pests who eat the beans become longer.

In Tanzania, gradually rising temperatures have reduced coffee yields by 50 percent since 1960.

Extreme rain or drought, two common effects of climate change, further threaten coffee plants.

In 2014, Brazil, the largest producer of Arabica beans, was hit by a catastrophic drought that threatened much of the country’s yield.

Then there’s the spread of fatal diseases such as Coffee Rust, which, for example, ruined up to 85% of the crops for some producers in Guatemala in 2012.

Small-scale farmers handle the majority of coffee production in the world. Most of them, however, are financially unable to adapt to climate change, which requires moving crops to more hospitable areas, planting more resilient strains of coffee or diversifying crops. Most farmers do not have the sitting capital to make these investments and wait for new plants to mature.

But with support from international players, this transition could become viable. Many big brands have committed to helping out and making the necessary investments.

The good news is that consumers can actively play a role in supporting this shift by buying brands that benefit small farmers.

Here’s a list of some of the labels you should keep an eye out for.

If drinking a cup of coffee is a part of your morning ritual, then you can probably join in the effort to save this vital plant.


Read More: What’s in a coffee label?



NORFOLK, Va. — Huge vertical rulers are sprouting beside low spots in the streets here, so people can judge if the tidal floods that increasingly inundate their roads are too deep to drive through.

Five hundred miles down the Atlantic Coast, the only road to Tybee Island, Ga., is disappearing beneath the sea several times a year, cutting the town off from the mainland.

And another 500 miles on, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., increased tidal flooding is forcing the city to spend millions fixing battered roads and drains — and, at times, to send out giant vacuum trucks to suck saltwater off the streets.

For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.

Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.

Federal scientists have documented a sharp jump in this nuisance flooding — often called “sunny-day flooding” — along both the East Coast and the Gulf Coast in recent years. The sea is now so near the brim in many places that they believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly. Shifts in the Pacific Ocean mean that the West Coast, partly spared over the past two decades, may be hit hard, too.

These tidal floods are often just a foot or two deep, but they can stop traffic, swamp basements, damage cars, kill lawns and forests, and poison wells with salt. Moreover, the high seas interfere with the drainage of storm water.

In coastal regions, that compounds the damage from the increasingly heavy rains plaguing the country, like those that recently causedextensive flooding in Louisiana. Scientists say these rains are also a consequence of human greenhouse emissions.

“Once impacts become noticeable, they’re going to be upon you quickly,” said William V. Sweet, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md., who is among the leaders in research on coastal inundation. “It’s not a hundred years off — it’s now.”

Local governments, under pressure from annoyed citizens, are beginning to act. Elections are being won on promises to invest money to protect against flooding. Miami Beach is leading the way, increasing local fees to finance a $400 million plan that includes raising streets, installing pumps and elevating sea walls.

In many of the worst-hit cities, mayors of both parties are sounding an alarm.

“I’m a Republican, but I also realize, by any objective analysis, the sea level is rising,” said Jason Buelterman, the mayor of tiny Tybee Island, one of the first Georgia communities to adopt a detailed climate plan.

Read the rest of the article here: Source

Clouds’ impact on climate change has been a scientific mystery, but a new study zeroes in on how they may be accelerating the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.

By Zahra Hirji

Clouds' role in climate change has been a mystery researchers are trying to solve

Clouds’ role in climate change has been a mystery researchers are trying to solve. Credit: Getty Images

Cloud patterns have been shifting over the past 30 years in ways that a new study says are possibly due to global warming––and may even lead to more warming in the future.

Climate scientists believe cloud changes are one of the biggest sources of uncertainty [1] in climate models and understanding how cloud patterns respond to rising greenhouse gas levels is critical to determining how much and how quickly global temperatures will rise.

This new study, published Monday in the journal Nature, provides for the first time a reliable record of past cloud changes spanning nearly three decades and a comparison of those changes with climate models. This brings researchers much closer to solving the mysterious cloud-climate relationship.

Most climate models have projected that global warming would cause the tops of certain clouds to move higher in the atmosphere and also trigger a decrease of cloudiness in the subtropics, expanding the dry zone there. The models also predict that these patterns will trigger more warming, creating what’s called a positive feedback loop.

The new findings offer “more evidence that clouds are going to be … [an] exacerbating factor” on climate change and not a mitigating one, lead author Joel Norris [2] told InsideClimate News.

Norris is a climate professor at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He conducted this study with five scientists from the University of California Riverside, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Colorado State University.

Because the only satellites available to monitor clouds for decades weren’t designed for this task, scientists haven’t been able to conclusively track cloud changes and compare them with the model results—until now. The study shows that these two cloud pattern changes predicted by the models have already been occurring in parts of the globe since at least the 1980s.

“It think it’s a very good study but it’s not really the smoking gun in terms of proving we know” how exactly clouds are impacting global warming, said Dennis Hartmann [3], a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. Hartmann was not involved in the study.

Measuring cloudiness has been difficult, if not impossible, for researchers because they’ve had to rely on satellites designed to measure weather patterns, not clouds. Scientists seeking to use this data grapple with a daunting array of challenges: satellites shift orbits over time; sensors degrade; instruments have to be replaced. So the data are inconsistent, and previous attempts to correct for these issues have left flaws (called “artifacts”) in the data that have led to incorrect or ambiguous interpretation.

To fix that, Norris and his colleagues developed a way to systematically find and remove these data artifacts. This allowed them to clean up the data from two satellite projects—International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP) and Extended Pathfinder Atmospheres (PATMOS-x)—to clearly observe cloud patterns between 1983 and 2009.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” said Joyce Penner [4], an atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study.

Their findings showed an increase in cloudiness in some regions and a decrease in others. They found that the subtropical dry zones—longitudinal bands containing many of the world’s deserts—are expanding. These areas could expect to see warmer surface temperatures and more evaporation, and possibly exacerbated droughts too.

The corrected data also showed the tops of the highest clouds are moving even higher in the atmosphere across the globe. This pattern could be even worse for the climate because clouds both absorb thermal radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface and emit some of that radiation to space. How well a cloud emits radiation to space depends on its temperature. Low clouds are more effective than high clouds at emitting radiation.

The researchers confirmed their findings with three other sources of satellite data used to indirectly measure cloudiness during the same time period.

After confirming that the cloud patterns they’d observed were real, Norris and others ran thousands of climate model simulations to see how they compared. Models set up to track changes in cloudiness due to natural variability did not match the observed patterns. Nor did models measuring the impact of ozone or other factors.

But models tracking cloud changes linked to greenhouse gas emissions or the impact of volcanoes spewing particles in the atmosphere did match. This means it is likely climate change along with the recovery of the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions has influenced the cloud changes observed between the early 1980s and late 2000s.

Penner said, however, the study doesn’t attempt to prove these cloud changes will then exacerbate global warming.

Hartmann praised the study, but said it raised a lot of questions, including why the observations revealed much more dramatic changes to cloudiness than the models predicted. Hartmann also said the study’s short time period was a limitation and questioned the findings that natural variability did not appear to account for the changes to cloudiness in the last few decades.

The study identified general changes in cloud patterns and did not attempt to measure and quantify such changes, either globally or in specific regions. Without these details, it’s difficult to predict how changing cloud patterns might impact Atlantic hurricane frequency or paths, for example, or other regional weather phenomena.

“It’s very enticing,” Penner said. “It leaves all these issues hanging out there that need further work.”


The currents are releasing 20 percent more heat than 50 years ago. Japan, China and Korea will warm faster and can expect more storminess, researchers say.

By Bob Berwyn

Men watch the ocean as super typhoon Nepartak nears the coast of Taiwan

There is reason to eye the ocean warily, as these men do as super typhoon Nepartak approaches the coast of Taiwan last week, as global warming increases the chances of stronger, more damaging storms. Credit: Reuters

Global warming is intensifying some of the world’s most important ocean currents, new research shows, raising the risk of damaging storms along heavily populated coastlines of China and Japan. The findings are sobering as China and Taiwan rebound from the devastating effects of super typhoon Nepartak last week.

The western boundary currents, which run along the eastern coasts of South Africa, Asia, Australasia, and South America, carry massive amounts of heat from the tropics poleward. The recent research [1] by a group of scientists with the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research [2] in Germany found they are strengthening, warming and moving poleward.

“They have been getting stronger and warmer since CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing,” said study author Hu Yang. “This heat must be released to the atmosphere. The most common way to release the heat is storms.”

Yang said storms like Nepartak, which took aim at Taiwan and the Chinese mainland last week, are likely to become more common in coming decades. Nepartak strengthened as it passed over the Kuriosho Current late last week, generating sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. The storm weakened slightly before making landfall [3] along the Taiwan coast, where it dropped up to 20 inches of rain in some spots.

“The coastal region of China, the western Pacific, is seeing much more warming than the global average, and it’s because of this intensification,” Hu said. “These currents will bring much more heat and precipitation in the future. China and Japan will suffer more warming than other regions.”

The study, published in June in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, looked at the Kuroshio Current, the Gulf Stream, the Brazil Current, the East Australian Current and the Agulhas Current, which are western branches of gyres that circulate around the perimeter of the world’s subtropical oceans—clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise the southern hemisphere. They are fast, much warmer than the surrounding ocean and have a “broad impact on the weather and climate over the adjacent mainland,” including the formation of intense storms, according to the study. They also play an important role in distributing heat globally.

Previous studies have suggested that the currents — with the exception of the Gulf Stream — have all strengthened in recent decades. By analyzing observational data from satellites and other sources (11 climate databases in all) from 1958 to 2001, along with the latest global-scale climate models, the researchers said they were able to show that long-term global warming is causing the simultaneous intensification and poleward shift of the currents.

The study found the currents are releasing 20 percent more heat than just 50 years ago, which is already beginning to have a significant impact on weather events along the eastern coasts of South Africa, Asia, Australasia, and South America. The researchers expect those areas to warm faster and become more stormy than other regions. In particular, Japan, China and Korea can all expect rapid warming and more storminess, especially in winter, said Gerrit Lohmann, a climate modeller at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute and co-author of the study.

The new findings are linked with other studies [4] showing that global warming is expanding and strengthening semi-stationary subtropical high-pressure systems. Those are domes of stable, warm and dry air that “largely determine the location of the world’s subtropical deserts, the zones of Mediterranean climate and the tracks of tropical cyclones,” The study says. As those high pressure domes strengthen, so do their clockwise winds that drive the boundary currents.

Michael Alexander, a researcher with NOAA’s Physical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colo., said, “Observations indicate that western boundary currents around the world, including the Gulf Stream are moving poleward (north in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the southern Hemisphere). “The position and strength of these currents are partly controlled by the surface winds. So a change in the winds may influence the Gulf Stream,” said Alexander, who was not involved in the new study.

Yang said the Gulf Stream is the exception to the findings. That current is driven more by contrasts in water temperature and density than by wind. Several separate studies have suggested the Gulf Stream is likely to slow as Greenland’s melting ice sheets pour cold and fresh water into the North Atlantic.

“There are other studies looking at these Western Boundary Currents. Some researchers tried to put a cable on the ocean floor and tried to detect the volume transport. In our study, we observed the ocean surface and tried to track changes to these currents by the heat release,” he said.

The fact that they found very similar results for nearly all the western boundary currents across all ocean basins in the northern and southern hemispheres led the scientists to the conclusion that global warming is the root cause.

“It must be forcing from something that can influence all ocean basins,” he said. “It’s amazing to have such a result … the findings fit so perfectly in all these areas.”

The climate scientists said the rapidly changing currents will affect animals and plants in the nearby coastal regions. Many species will be forced to move to find suitable habitat, but some probably won’t be able, said Lohmann.

“In the coastal fishing grounds, the fish won’t be able to survive in their previous living environments. A change of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius will be too much for them,” Yang said.


Alberta, home to the tar sands, is about to see a renewable energy boom—and former oil field workers are spearheading the effort.

By Leyland Cecco

EDMONTON, Alberta—Randall Benson works his way through numbers, measurement, and the technique of properly installing anchors to a roof. Most in the class he is teaching are electricians and power engineers, so Benson is able to dive into specifics—micro-inverters, angling, spacing. His 10 students watch intently. José Gutiérrez made the three-hour trip from Calgary—the economic hub of Canada’s oil and gas industry—for Benson’s five-day course. Pasquale Auriemma, a master electrician with more than 15 years’ experience at the Surmont and Kearl tar sands projects near Fort McMurray, paid almost $1,700 to attend the workshop.

A hefty sum for a week of learning, but for most, it’s an investment aimed at no less than rescuing their professional careers amid the uncertainty plaguing the province’s energy industry. The men have spent years earning hefty wages—breaching six figures with overtime—in Canada’s fossil fuels industry. High oil prices kept them gainfully employed with the companies mining the region’s tar sands for the particularly carbon-rich form of crude oil that would have filled the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Benson’s class isn’t a matter of professional development for the men’s careers in the oil fields, however. They’re learning to install solar panels. A collapse in oil prices and a political turnabout have spurred a shift in Alberta: The region that for decades has been synonymous with dirty energy is poised for a renewable energy boom, and former tar sands workers—Benson is one—are sparking the change.

“I like to say I’ve worked two full-time jobs over the last 15 years—solar and advocacy,” Benson says after class. “Whatever you harvest from the earth, you have to give back.”

On the June afternoon inside the commercial warehouse where Benson runs Gridworks Energy Group, his solar installation company, students pair off to practice what they’ve learned of anchor placement on a model roof. As one group frets over fitting rails, Benson is easygoing: “My dad always said, ‘You’re not building a piano.’ ” When it comes to the installation of the blue solar modules, though, he becomes ruthlessly surgical; to maximize sun exposure, precision is key. “OK or good doesn’t cut it,” he scolds. “We’re overbuilding this so you can sleep well at night

The son of a Cree mother and a Métis father, Benson grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta, hunting and fishing in the wilds around his home. Like many others in the region, he found employment in the northern tar sands shortly after graduating from high school.

“Everyone works in the tar sands. If you don’t, you work in an industry that services the tar sands,” says Benson. “I figured that was my lot in life.”

After years in the industry, Benson succumbed to a nagging feeling that followed him to work and back each day: He was betraying the values of respect for the earth his community had instilled in him from a young age. Mining the tar sands for oil has cleared or degraded almost 2 million acres of pristine boreal forest (a breeding ground the size of Florida for 30 percent of songbirds in the U.S.), according to data from Global Forest Watch, creating 19 square miles of toxic tailing ponds. And there is mounting evidence of negative health effects on locals from the mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals necessary for tar sands extraction.

One day in 1995, Benson picked up an issue of Home Power magazine by chance. An article on distributed solar electricity hooked him. He quit the oil industry and moved south, swapping one subset of the energy sector for another to open Gridworks. It wasn’t easy for Benson to look back: Wealth cascaded over the city he had left behind and into the pockets of his former colleagues as the tar sands industry in Alberta boomed. With the price of oil climbing, coffers filled and jobs were plentiful. He had gambled on an immature technology that couldn’t compete in an era of cheap power and boundless employment.

In 2008, he launched a program to train workers in installation of PV panels. He has since trained more than 1,000 electricians and power engineers to install solar panels as a way to augment their skill sets. With the recent oil collapse, interest is surging; enrollment has spiked 500 percent since 2011. “Every class is sold out. It’s overwhelming,” Benson says.

A population that not only has a large base of energy workers but also understands the value of energy resources, including the sun, is really going to adopt solar aggressively.

John Gormon, president, Canadian Solar Industries Association

Although the largest solar farm in Western Canada is a puny 2 megawatt installation—California’s largest has a capacity of 579 megawatts—solar power should see at least a 300-fold increase in installed capacity over the next 15 years, according to the Canadian Solar Industries Association. Even the province’s energy giants are on board; Suncor, the $43 billion multinational that pioneered tar sands exploration, has proposed three utility-scale solar projects totaling 240 megawatts. Enbridge, even as it was pushing a pipeline to deliver tar sands oil to British Columbia, made plans for solar farms of at least another 10 megawatts.

In November, the provincial government announced a goal to generate 30 percent of its energy needs from renewables by 2030. The plan is ambitious; solar in the province generates just 8.5 megawatts of the 16,000 megawatts of electricity in the province. CanSIA is pushing solar as a big booster of employment in a province that has lost 63,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector, according to Statistics Canada, as the price of oil has fallen. CanSIA claims solar creates 10 times as many jobs as any other form of power generation and that if solar captures even a quarter of Alberta’s renewables portfolio, it will create more than 41,000 jobs, helping to offset the losses in oil and gas.

The Great Recession hit workers like Gutiérrez and Auriemma hard, but jobs came back quickly as demand for oil resurged. This time, though, the change in the oil industry appears to be what economists call secular, as opposed to cyclical. A glut of supply brought on by new horizontal hydraulic fracturing techniques sent prices sinking, leading to layoffs. The province’s economy, tied to a lofty commodities market, was devastated; according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, 66,000 jobs in Alberta have been lost indirectly as a result of the layoffs in oil and gas. The decline in output has even strained the national GDP. Flames from wildfires rolling dangerously close to production facilities have stoked the anxiety of an industry caught in the doldrums, and the large-scale disruption has led to a mental health crisis, a rash of foreclosures, and drug turf wars.

Because of the high costs associated with extracting, preparing for shipment, and refining tar sands oil, prices need to settle close to $85 per barrel for companies to turn a profit on many projects (the break-even point was closer to $60 only a decade ago, but much of the cheap stuff has by now been taken out of the ground). Many newer entrants are swimming in debt and at risk of defaulting. Facilities lacking pipeline access use trucks or rail to transport the oil, bearing a much higher operating cost. Exploration has largely ceased, according to the International Energy Agency.

One company found that solar could reduce its expenses. Tar sands extraction is much more energy intensive than drilling for other forms of oil; installing solar panels, with their limitless supply of fuel, penciled out as a good investment for upstart company Imaginea Energy. It built arrays near well sites to power the pump jacks. The PV panels provide up to 80 percent of the energy, supplanting natural gas and coal, and don’t have much of an environmental impact on the site, given that it is already disturbed. “It allows us to produce our own electricity on the site. It lowers our operating cost because we don’t have to buy the power from the Alberta grid,” says Krzysztof Palka, chief strategist of sustainability, innovation, and operational leadership at Imaginea. Rather than buying an offset or paying a higher carbon tax, he says, “we would actually like to reduce our emissions and air pollution.”

Imaginea benefits from Alberta’s exceptionally clear weather. If Canadians outside the province were jealous during the boom times that Alberta sits on the bulk of the country’s oil supply, they’ll be dismayed to know the province is also the country’s sunniest. Calgary sees more than 330 sunny days a year.

That and the supply of skilled labor brought about by the oil industry layoffs together make Alberta ideal for growth of the solar industry, says John Gorman, president and CEO of CanSIA. “A population that not only has a large base of energy workers but also understands the value of energy resources, including the sun, is really going to adopt solar aggressively,” he says.

In a few regions, solar power has reached grid parity—the point at which the cost of power generation is the same as that from other sources—even without incentives. But competing against low-cost natural gas and coal means solar in Alberta has faced an uphill struggle. Until recently, half the province’s energy needs came from coal. Mines and the smokestacks at the generators the mines fueled are as much a part of the landscape as cattle and canola. Today, a full two decades after Benson bet on solar, circumstances have aligned to create a demand for his and Gorman’s product.

A little over a year ago, Alberta elected the New Democratic Party to a majority in the province’s legislature, a sharp turn left for the historically conservative province. Premier Rachel Notley’s government sped up the province’s schedule for retiring coal-fired power plants by more than a decade. On Jan. 1, 2017, the government will start to levy a $20-per-tonne tax on carbon, ratcheting up to $30 by 2018. Its 2016 budget announced $3.4 billion in funding for renewable energy projects.

Meanwhile, silicon-based PV modules dropped in price from $30 per watt to less than $4 per watt in just five years.

Alberta is positioning solar to be an economical power source for both utility and residential projects, with details to be released in November. Gorman says his organization has “very, very high confidence now, because we’ve been in discussions with [the provincial government] for a long time,” that distributed solar—panels on people’s rooftops—will see a lot of growth in Alberta and that the province will be “also a significant player over the coming years at the utilities-scale side.”

As of now, the province has little experience with solar. What it has is plenty of laborers with applicable skills. Oil and gas is heavily reliant on a large pool of skilled tradespeople—pipe fitters, boilermakers, welders, and electricians who labored in the tar sands alongside rig workers—but many of even these skilled workers are now jobless and could stay that way until oil prices more than double. Gorman and others say they can easily transfer their skills to renewable energy.

“For a lot of these industrial trades, very little retraining is needed,” says Lliam Hildebrand, a fourth-generation boilermaker. “It just comes down to having the blueprints and the manufacturing capacity.” Last year he started a nonprofit group called Iron & Earth. It advocates for the government and the private sector to retrain oil workers for jobs in renewable energy. Hildebrand views the transition as a “move into a new industry that’s not going to be as susceptible to the boom-and-bust cycles as the oil and gas industry.”

Originally from British Columbia’s rain-soaked West Coast, Hildebrand spent much of his working life in the tar sands, by far the largest employer of the skilled trades in the country, according to Statistics Canada. A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Hildebrand, like Benson, was frustrated in his attempts to find work that aligned with his views. That led him, too, to renewable energy.

Hildebrand is convinced workers will move from oil and coal to the solar industry as it makes up an ever-larger portion of Alberta’s energy supply. “The individuals impacted by the closure of the coal are the same constituency that currently works in the tar sands,” says Hildebrand. “As a boilermaker, a lot of my coworkers rely on these maintenance contracts at these coal plants.”

While Benson and Hildebrand have always thought of themselves as greens, other members of Iron & Earth, like Joe Bacsu, aren’t similarly motivated. They just want to maintain the quality of life afforded them by decades of well-paying blue-collar labor in oil and coal, and they see solar installation as a less demanding job. “I’m a third-generation boilermaker, and I know my dad wishes he could have worked in a different environment,” says Bacsu of the intensely physical work in coal-fired power plants.

Iron & Earth has been pushing for 1,000 workers like Bacsu to be trained and then placed on 100 new solar installation projects. Within weeks of the announcement of the goal, 400 tar sands workers had signed up. “Most of them want to continue working in the tar sands but want to have the ability to also work in renewable energy,” says Hildebrand. “I think a lot of these guys see it as prudence.”

Auriemma, the master electrician in Benson’s class, confirms that view. “Solar is just another resource. I never look at it in terms of getting rid of oil or replacing it. It’s just another ace in your hand. It’s just a way of diversifying,” says.