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Alberta village that started mining coal and shifted to oil and gas struggles to make a go with wind

The village of Halkirk in central Alberta was founded by the coal industry and thrived during the oil boom decades later. Now, its landscape is dotted with wind turbines. As Erin Collins reports, this latest transition hasn't been easy.

The people of Halkirk have been producing power of one kind or another for more than a century

It's easy to spot the coming boom in wind power from the streets of Halkirk, a village in central Alberta. (Colin Hall/CBC)

The people of Paintearth County, Alta., have been in the business of producing power for more than a century.

First, they mined the plentiful veins of coal in this area northeast of Calgary. The Battle River coal-fired power plant still helps keep the lights on in this part of the world.

Then came the oil and gas boom. Pump jacks and natural gas compressor stations still dot the scrubby prairie landscape.

Today, there is another power shift underway in Paintearth County. A transition that is easy to see from the dusty main street in the village of Halkirk.

Dozens of wind turbines spin across the horizon in this community of just over 100 people, towering above the grain elevator and water tower.

Global forces in the energy sector — in this case, the depressed price of oil and the pressure to fight climate change — are once again changing the character of this place. But the transition to clean, renewable energy production hasn't been without some serious growing pains.

"I think we have to face the music," said county reeve Stan Schulmeister. "I would love another oil boom, but what are the chances of that?"  

The turbines are impossible to miss outside the century-old hotel that remains the beating heart of the town.

The Halkirk Hotel was built during the coal boom of the early 20th century. During its heyday, it was packed with workers from the local mine, drawn to its "clean rooms - fine food - potable spirits" — words that are still etched on the exterior of the building.

The hotel in Halkirk was built during the coal boom more than a century ago. The tiny village is transitioning to produce wind power. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Leona Robertson has owned the hotel for more than 20 years. During Robertson's early days here, it was oil and gas workers who packed her bar on Saturday nights and filled her rooms during the week.

But the downturn in the oil industry and the imminent phase out of coal-fired electricity have seen those customers slowly disappear. These days, Robertson says, it's workers building wind turbines who help pay her bills.

Business is good for as long as construction lasts. Once the turbines are running, most of Robertson's customers leave town. It isn't as steady a clientele as oil and gas workers who have to stick around to maintain and operate wells after they are drilled. 

"Once the turbines are up and running, the wind pretty much does the rest," she said.

Edmonton's Capital Power operates the Halkirk 1 wind farm, consisting of 83 turbines spread out around the village. The farm, which launched in 2012, has the capacity to produce 150 megawatts of electricity, or enough power to run about 50,000 homes.

Leona Robertson has owned the hotel for 20 years. Her business has suffered as work in the oilpatch has dried up in recent years. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Coal still provides about 35 per cent of Alberta's electricity, but those carbon-intensive power plants are in the process of being closed down by 2030.

Robertson doesn't mind the wind turbines that are part of the transition, but she misses the customers that the coal, oil and natural gas industries brought with them.

The financial uncertainty led Robertson to put the hotel up for sale. She recently slashed the asking price by half.

"I don't think you can ever replace the oil and gas, but I do think there is going to be more wind turbines," she said.

'Some people don't like change'

Cleaner-burning natural gas now supplies about half of Alberta's power, but the province has committed to using more renewable forms of energy like wind, which currently provides about nine per cent.

Strolling down Halkirk's main drag, Schulmeister, the county reeve, says he hopes Robertson is right about more wind power coming to Paintearth County.

The impact of the slowdown in the oil and gas sector is easy to see. Besides the hotel, only a single shop selling pop and chips remains open. The rest of the street is mostly deserted.

Reeve Stan Schulmeister believes the revenue from new wind turbines in the area can help replace the declining revenue from oil and gas operators in Paintearth County. (Colin Hall/CBC)
 

Schulmeister says the downturn has meant that local oil and gas companies failed to pay $1 million in county taxes, which had to be written down last year, putting a strain on Paintearth's finances.

He hopes the wind turbines spinning here, and others planned for the area, can help make up for some of the lost revenue going forward.

Developers hope to have as many as 500 turbines spinning in the near future. A second wind farm with 74 more turbines to be built around Halkirk has been approved by the province.

It's a plan that Schulmeister admits has some vocal opponents.

"Some people don't like change, but really, we have no control over change. It's going to happen whether we are ready for it or not," he said.

'The Wild West'

Local farmer Carmen Felzien is one of those opponents.

She says many farmers are worried about the impact of all those wind turbines on their land.

The Felzien family farm is seen from above. The family is concerned its operation will be negatively affected by a new wind farm planned for the area. (Carmen Falzien/CBC)
 

The big problem, according to Felzien, is there is a lack of regulations governing wind power in the province.

"It's like the Wild West all over again," she said.

Felzien says regulations need to be strengthened to clearly establish how far wind turbines should be set back from homes, whether they can go in sensitive environmental areas, and what will happen to them once they stop turning in 25 to 30 years.

Several farmers in the area have banded together to challenge the approval of the new wind farm in court.

The issue has divided the community, Felzien said. Some longtime neighbours who used to help each other harvest crops are no longer speaking because they're on opposite sides of the issue, she said.

"It's actually really ugly," she said. "It is divisive in the community. It is divisive with our relationship with our municipal government. It has been very unpleasant."

Despite the push for more renewable energy, what work there is in Paintearth County still mostly revolves around more traditional sources of energy.

Just outside Halkirk sits Cape Manufacturing, built in the former shop of a decommissioned coal mine. Cape is one of the largest employers in the area, with around 40 full-time staff producing equipment for the oil and gas industry. 

"The last few years have been the most devastating I have ever seen," said president Thomas Chadwick, as he strolled through his factory floor. Chadwick says he has about 20 per cent fewer employees now than before the downturn that began in 2014. 

Thomas Chadwick of Cape Industries believes natural gas is a better fit for Alberta's clean energy transition than renewable sources such as wind and solar. (Colin Hall/CBC)
 

Chadwick understands that a shift to cleaner forms of energy is inevitable. In fact, he says, Cape looked into manufacturing wind turbines when the first ones popped up in the area seven years ago. 

But he says the province showed little interest in having the turbines made locally, so he has continued to focus on the oil and gas sector.

Chadwick believes that in the short term, natural gas can provide a "bridge to the future," away from coal, while still maintaining local jobs and benefiting both the environment and the economy.

"Even solar panels have a carbon footprint to produce those panels and the amount of carbon footprint that natural gas produces is relatively low," he said.

Wind turbines are seen from Dale Gonda's yard in Halkirk. He doesn't mind the shift to wind power but hopes Alberta can remain a force in the oil and gas sector. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Back in Halkirk, the future of electricity generation is hard to escape, even as the power production of the past and present maintain their pull.

Dale Gonda's view from his backyard is a series of wind turbines spinning in the distance. Gonda, who works on the oil rigs when there is work to be had, says he doesn't oppose the turbines but would prefer if things "stayed the same."

Born and raised in Halkirk, he understands change is coming but isn't sure it will benefit his hometown.

"It doesn't really bring a whole bunch of new families to the community," he said of wind farms. "Like, if you had 83 oil wells, it would produce a lot more local-based jobs."

More jobs, and people to fill them, would be welcome here, but there is little confidence that the latest energy shift in Halkirk will produce either.

About the Author

Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.

Erin Collins

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