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.