Renewable energy jobs provide new opportunities for Alberta workers

Trades and careers in renewable energy, like wind and solar power, could play a part in easing Alberta's employment crunch, providing jobs in the near future and for decades to come.

Some oil and gas workers are retraining in the hope of a more stable career

Alberta is home to a workforce that could help support the growth of the wind energy sector with many transferable skills and trades. (Reuters)

Trades and careers in renewable energy, like wind and solar power, could play a part in easing Alberta's employment crunch — providing jobs in the near future and for decades to come.

The industry says there are many oil and gas jobs and skills that will be needed as renewables begin to take off, with many workers well positioned to make the transition.

"Four of our intake of 16 are from oil and gas and one of them is now a journeyman electrician. He wanted to move to an industry that's more stable," said Chris Delisle, an instructor in Lethbridge College's wind turbine technician program.

Lethbridge College, which sits right in the middle of Alberta's wind belt, is marketing its program as one that can be completed in less than a year. The program promises careers in wind turbine maintenance, turbine construction, turbine manufacturing and wind turbine blade repair.

The wind energy sector is poised to deliver $3.7 billion in spending to Alberta companies between now and 2030, according to a recent report from the Delphi Group for the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

The report, released in September, suggests the industry could see 15,000 job-years created in that time as the provincial government looks to add 5,000 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030.

According to the association, Alberta now ranks third in Canada for wind energy. With demand expected to grow substantially over the years ahead, there will be lots of opportunities for companies and workers to transition and retrain.

Transition, training key to future workforce

"If you work in construction, road building, if you pour foundations or erect steel structures and you're doing that in the traditional energy industry now, then there's going to opportunity to use those skills in the wind industry," said Evan Wilson, the CWEA's regional director for the Prairies.

"Currently in the U.S., wind turbine technician is the fastest growing job, according to the department of labour. We're building out 5,000 megawatts of renewables here and we're going to need people to maintain and fix that," said Wilson.

Wilson says there's room for firms and individuals to work in both traditional oil and gas jobs, as well as renewables. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Evan Wilson is the regional director for the Prairies at the Canadian Wind Energy Association. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Another future boom industry banking on a well-trained local workforce is solar.

"Alberta has a wonderful solar resource, about 30 per cent more than most of the world," said Tom Jackman with SAIT, which offers programs in solar installation.

"It gives us a natural advantage and we're at the point where we're starting take advantage of that and get solar systems rolled out at utility scale and commercial, industrial and residential. There's quite a bit of activity," said Jackman.

Jackman says growth in solar also means growth in solar-related jobs, with some being an extension of traditional trades, like plumbing and electrical work.

Solar industry poised for growth

"There's a whole range of possibilities: electricians, electrical engineering technologists and power engineering technologists and even the architectural and building design side," Jackman said. "There are even solar opportunities within the oil and gas industry as they use less energy to run their businesses."

David Kelly, the CEO of Skyfire Energy — western Canada's leading solar provider — says his company is poised to huge growth in the province.

"We're going to need a workforce in the solar industry that is engineering, sales, marketing, accounting, installation. We have all these different aspects. Project management, logistics, shipping," he said.

CEO of Skyfire Energy, David Kelly, says solar needs large numbers of new employees as the sector continues to grow in Alberta.. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Kelly says trades in Alberta need to get up to speed to meet the demand from solar jobs that are now coming on-stream.

To fill those jobs, a new generation of students is now seriously considering trades and careers outside of traditional energy industry jobs, and view the world differently, through a lens of social and environmental responsibility, according to one SAIT student.

"That's one of the issues I've had to face is trying work for a company that wants to make the world a better place, not only economically, but with an environmental push as well," said Jesse Corbel, who's studying IT and network systems. "Social responsibility is really important to me, so oil and gas isn't the direction I would take."

"It's planning ahead, trying to plan smart based on where everything is going, and I definitely see the big shift to renewables," Corbel said.

'A new normal'

"It's really starting to happen and it's basic common sense, even though the market is new, more jobs are going to be coming online in the very near future," said Jen Turner, director of communications with Iron & Earth, a group of oilsands workers committed to more renewable energy projects in Alberta. 

"At some point we really have to stop calling it a downturn. It's really a transition to a new normal," said Turner, who spent 10 years working on oil rigs in Alberta as a well site consultant. 

Turner says she predicts a lot of people will end up working in both industries in the future in a truly integrated energy industry that encompasses both the old and the new.