There just aren’t enough solar training centres in Alberta to keep up with demand from former oilpatch workers, according to Randall Benson, owner of Gridworks Energy Group, an Edmonton-based company that designs, supplies and installs solar panels.
Benson, who has worked in the solar industry since the year 2000, said more capacity is needed to upgrade the skills of the province’s vastly underemployed oil and gas workforce which has lost thousands of jobs in the wake of plummeting oil prices.
“We do a lot of training,” Benson told DeSmog Canada. “The interest in training is unbelievable, it's gone up two or three fold just in the last couple of years. And it continues to grow.”
Benson, who said he’s had to turn people away from full classes, is currently considering opening up another training centre in Calgary to keep up with demand.
But as reports of overburdened solar training centres start to emerge, the biggest question — of who will employ all the newly trained workers — remains unanswered.
Benson estimates 98 per cent of his students are from the energy sector and are either out of work or they're “seeing a switch happening.”
“Something is telling them that it's time to diversify their training and skill set. Worldwide solar and other renewables are going to be the biggest source of jobs soon,” Benson said.
But so far Canada has bucked the worldwide trend, with low to medium demand for solar energy workers, Benson said. The best option for recent grads of solar training programs is independent contracting, installing solar panels on private homes and buildings, he said.
This reality might change in the next couple of years.
Lliam Hildebrand, founder of Iron and Earth, an organization of former oilsands workers committed to renewable energy projects, says utility scale solar projects will go into construction mode in late 2018.
“Over the next two years we have an incredible opportunity to be proactive with our training programs,” Hildebrand said. “If we wait until  to prepare the workforce then we'll be behind the ball and these companies might just hire workers from North Dakota who have a lot more experience than any of our trades people in Alberta.”
The governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan both recently committed to renewables — Alberta to the tune of 30 per cent renewables by 2030 and Saskatchewan to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 — and they’ll need to procure that renewable energy from somewhere.
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) August 29, 2016
But there's still a lot that has to be done in the form of funding and policy work if Alberta is going to truly harness it’s solar potential. The Alberta government is currently providing up to $5 million to finance the cost of setting up solar power in buildings such as offices, fire halls, community centres and farms.
But, for those on the inside, $5 million is not nearly enough to kickstart the solar industry.
“It’s a great start, but we're gonna need a lot more programs like that in order to help prepare us for this larger boom that's going to be happening in 2018,” Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand hopes to get funding from both the federal and provincial governments to start training programs. Hildebrand wasn't ready to go public on the amount of money he hopes to get — only that he expects 50 per cent to come from Alberta and the other half from the federal government. He recently had an invitation from federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to meet with her and discuss a proposal.
“Until then what's going to be creating the most jobs in renewable energy, and the energy sector in general, is smaller operations like small residential projects, because those can happen almost over-night,” Hildebrand said.
That's just funding though — there’s also the issue of policy.
According to Sara Hastings-Simon —the Pembina Institute’s Clean Economy program director — in order to understand what it takes from a policy perspective to further grow jobs, it's important to distinguish between two types of solar: distributed solar, which is where the home owner or business owner put panels up on their roofs, and utility scale solar which would include larger solar farms.
“The first overall point is that there is a lot of potential for jobs in solar in Canada, and in Alberta specifically, we have one of the best solar resources in all of Canada,” Hastings-Simon said.
Unlike B.C., Alberta has a de-regulated market, this means that every hour energy operators bid a certain amount of energy for a certain amount of money. Then it’s up to a grid operator to line them up in order, from the lowest price to the highest, until he has amassed all the energy needed to meet demand that specific hour. This means the most expensive bidders get left out and the remaining energy operators get paid the price of the highest bidder who's power is being used.
“It costs renewable producers less money to create power if their panels are already built, so they will bid less money,” Hastings-Simon said. “If solar had a large enough share they could bring down the price of electricity.”
“In the U.S., states that increased their use of renewables saw the cost for consumers go down by as much as 10 per cent.”
The problem is utility solar only gets cheaper once you deploy it at scale because the maintenance is much cheaper then other forms of energy production. But if businesses aren’t pushed in the direction of renewables, they will just continue with the status quo, Hastings-Simon said. This means another way to provide policy support for renewables is by lowering the cost of financing, like providing loan guarantees.
The federal government does currently provide tax breaks to investors.
In a statement provided to DeSmog Canada, Natural Resources Canada said they encourage investments in specified clean energy generation and energy conservation equipment. This provision allows the capital cost of eligible equipment acquired before 2020 to be deducted at a rate of 50 per cent per year. And certain intangible start-up costs associated with renewable energy projects are eligible for 100 per cent tax deductions.
According to Natural Resources, the 2016 budget is providing $50 million to Sustainable Development Technology Canada to support “the development of new technologies that address climate change, air quality, clean water and clean soil.”
An additional $82.5 million is being provided to support research, development and demonstration of clean energy technologies. Natural Resources did not specify what percentage of that budget is destined for solar.
Unlike utility scale projects, in the case of distributed solar — private home and business owners with solar panels on their roofs — the big policy driver isn’t funding, it’s accounting.
Alberta uses a net billing system which means that, while you’re sending excess energy to your neighbours, you're paid back for the electricity charges but not other variable charges like transmission and distribution.
Changing this policy to more fairly value the energy that is generated on people's roofs is one way the government could make sure the distributed market — which Hastings-Simon says is very good from a jobs perspective — is more attractive.
“Alberta is following the same trend as other jurisdictions: we’re in the transition to clean our energy, both for the environmental and health benefits, but also simply because it makes more and more economic sense.”
Image: A solar technician with Great Canadian Solar inspects a panel at the Leduc solar field. Great Canadian Solar has more than doubled its staff in 2016 already. Photo: David Dodge/Green Energy Futures via Flickr