Brandon Sandmaier solar Generate Energy

After oil and gas: Meet Alberta workers making the switch to solar

Alberta’s oil and gas workers can be underrepresented — or even maligned — in conversations about an energy transition in Canada. The Narwhal met with three former oil and gas workers to learn more about their lives and personal reasons for transitioning to solar

The oil and gas industry has long been a mainstay for young people — especially men — looking for work in Alberta, and Dustin Taylor was one of them.

Taylor was born in Nova Scotia, where his dad worked on an offshore oil rig. He moved to Alberta as a kid, and found himself in yet another province heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry.

“I left school before I graduated and pretty much started working right off the hop,” he said. “And, like most people in Alberta, I ended up working in the energy industry — working in oil and gas, making decent money.”

He started working in oil and gas when he was 16, without finishing high school.

At his first job, he made $60,000 a year. In the years that followed, he made a lot of money. He partied. He didn’t vote. He didn’t care much about politics.

Something started to change for Taylor as the years went on in the oil patch. He remembers the 2010 BP oil spill as a pivotal moment in his thinking.

“It was plastered all over the news for days, and I watched this giant catastrophe just unfold in front of our eyes for days on end,” he said. 

It was, he remembers, “a heartbreaking moment.”

Fast-forward several years, and Taylor is one of thousands of solar workers in Alberta — and one of many who has transitioned out of the fossil fuel sector into renewable energy.

Taylor is one of the workers The Narwhal came across when we started asking questions about the fledgling idea of an energy transition in Alberta. We wanted to know how switching careers, and industries, has impacted workers’ lives.

 

 

Switching careers comes with challenges, such as reduced pay, learning new skills or possible relocation. Labour advocates are adamant that governments need to be planning for an energy transition — and the implications it holds for thousands of workers in the province.

“We need to ensure that the pace of our sustainable energy development is on track to meet climate targets and help ensure the world can reach net zero by 2050,” Lliam Hildebrand of Iron & Earth, an oilsands-worker led group pushing for retraining in renewables, told The Narwhal. “We’re not on track for that right now.”

“If we were, there would be a lot more jobs.”

In Alberta, there’s added uncertainty surrounding the Government of Alberta’s solar rebate program designed to incentivize the installation of new solar systems on homes and businesses. 

The program has been paused by the province’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government, a move critics say is a step backwards in the province’s ability to support needed renewable-energy jobs. 

On the campaign trail, the UCP deemed solar rebates “costly” and vowed to end them. Critics of that move point to subsidies for the fossil fuel sector — a 2018 study found that Canada provides more government support for oil and gas companies than any other G7 nation.

The global energy transition “is going to happen in spite of Alberta,” Rod Wood, national representative with the general trades union Unifor, told The Narwhal. “You’re either part of the conversation or you’re lunch. It’s just going to steamroll over you.”

 “This is going to happen whether you participate or not,” he said.

This has led some workers to change careers early — with or without government transition programs or support for the renewable industry. 

‘Transition is necessary’

“We’re in the very early days of this transition,” said Mark Rowlinson, who works in the office of the national director of the United Steelworkers union and who is also the president of BlueGreen Canada — an alliance of labour and environmental organizations advocating for a transition into a cleaner economy.

“The transition is necessary because all of the available scientific evidence — most recently expressed by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report last fall — makes it clear that we’re going to have to transition our economy off of fossil fuels and become carbon neutral,” Rowlinson told The Narwhal.

 It’s not purely political considerations that are driving this transition.

 

 

“Oil and gas companies have been investing in solar and wind and other renewable technologies because that will be the next growth market,” Sven Anders, a professor of resource economics at the University of Alberta, told The Narwhal.

Numerous studies suggest that the economics of solar power are increasingly favourable. A 2019 report from Canada’s energy regulator noted “the cost to install solar has fallen by about 50 per cent in the United States over the past five years, and costs have fallen in Canada as well.”

“Falling costs are important,” the report continues, “because they make solar power more cost competitive with other forms of traditional generation.”

How and when the solar-energy industry grows and becomes increasingly competitive in Alberta has huge implications for workers, though a total transition won’t happen overnight.

Anders said investing in renewable energy can mean Alberta has “a second or third or fourth leg to stand on” as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

“There’s an opportunity to create these renewable sectors and harness the sun and the wind and so on,” he said. And, he said, that’s not necessarily a threat to the oil and gas sector.

For those who do want to make the move, the transition to a career in renewable energy doesn’t come without its own challenges.

It hasn’t been an easy transition for everyone, and for some, it still feels impossible. Last year, coal workers described to The Narwhal the difficulties of looking for new lines of work after years spent in the coal mine. 

In response to the phase-out of coal-fired electricity, the Alberta government put together a plan to help workers losing their jobs — including retraining support, extended employment insurance and relocation allowances. Critics said the program wasn’t perfect, but a step in the right direction.

Now many labour advocates are wondering if a similar program is necessary for the oil and gas industry. “The oil and gas industry is a threatened industry; a sunset industry,” Wood of Unifor told The Narwhal. 

“I think it’s imperative that government is involved in this.”

The extractive industries are important employers in Alberta. According to Statistics Canada, roughly 1 in every 16 workers in Alberta is employed in the category described as “forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, oil and gas.”

There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs connected to the fossil fuel industry in this country,” Rowlinson told The Narwhal. “And for the most part, many of those are well-paying jobs. They are jobs that actually support middle class families. Many of them are unionized.”

According to the Government of Alberta’s employment information website, there are 6,700 solar installers in the province. A 2018 report produced by Solas Energy Consulting for the Solar Energy Society of Alberta estimated there will be “8,800 annual full-time equivalent jobs by 2030” in the solar industry.

If the jobs created in renewable energy are precarious or not well-paid, Rowlinson said, “the transition will not be, in any sense of the word, just.”

Right now, there are simply not enough renewable-energy jobs for every oil and gas worker to switch into, even if they wanted to. And plenty of people are simply not interested.

“It’s not like if every worker that wanted a renewable energy job just decided to go all in … there’s not enough jobs out there for everybody to do that,” Hildebrand said. “But there are examples of people who have had success.”

For many, a big concern is the money. “Everybody goes to Fort McMurray to make money,” said Kyle Bauer, an electrician who now works for Kuby Renewable Energy in Edmonton. He acknowledges that he had to take a pay cut to switch industries.

But, he said, that’s outweighed by the positives. He doesn’t have to work in camps. He can be home every night.

And he feels like he’s part of a change that’s important.

“We need to be much more serious and specific about how we’re going to have a plan to transition off fossil fuels in this country,” Rowlinson said.

“The market tends to move with its own feet. If the market sees that the future of the fossil fuel industry is not looking great, it will move quickly,” he said. “And it will move without a plan.” 

“That means there will be wreckage left behind it, and that’s what we need to try to avoid.”

Building an industry

Brandon Sandmaier, too, was looking for a change. He’s a heavy-duty mechanic — so are his brother and his dad — who grew up in the small town of Morinville, Alta. He worked in Fort McMurray in the past, but he wanted something different from that in the future.

“I love changing technology and staying on top of emerging things that are going to, you know, impact the world,” he said.

“Renewable energy was something I didn’t actually know a whole lot about,” he said. “I knew I wanted a change.” He ended up starting his own solar company, Generate Energy.

“At the end of the day we’re trying to build an industry here in Alberta,” he said.

 

Alberta to end ‘costly subsidies’

While there’s been much talk about the global transition toward renewable energy, that conversation is not as common in parts of Alberta heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry.

One of the United Nations sustainable development goals is to “by 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.” 

The Canada Energy Regulator said in a report released in August that renewable energy is “a fundamental component” of the country’s energy transition.

In the meantime, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has seemingly staked much of the province’s future on oil and gas.

“We’re talking about trillions of dollars of potential wealth,” Kenney said in an interview with CBC host Rosemary Barton earlier this year. “There’s a growing global demand, whether people like it or not, for oil and gas through at least the year 2040.”

When Kenney ran for office, he ran on a platform that his UCP government would “end costly subsidies” for the renewable energy program in the province — a promise all indicators suggest he is keeping.

Alberta no longer accepts applications for its popular rebate program for homeowners or companies that want to install new solar energy systems. (Jess Sinclair, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Parks, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Sharon J. Riley Brandon Sandmaier

Author Sharon J. Riley speaks with Brandon Sandmaier of Generate Energy. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

Meanwhile, a 2018 report found that, when compared to other G7 nations, Canada provides more government support for oil and gas companies than any other. 

The study also concluded that G7 governments, taken together, provide at least $100 billion (USD) annually to support the production and consumption of coal, oil and gas.

That leaves some wondering if Alberta’s solar rebates were really so costly after all.

Instead of continuing with subsidies, the UCP platform said, Alberta would “welcome market-driven green power to Alberta and the jobs that such renewable energy producers will create.” 

Rowlinson said that’s the wrong approach. 

“There’s no question that governments play a key role in stimulating investment — public or private investment — in renewable energy and making sure that renewable energy creates jobs in Alberta,” he told The Narwhal.

But even without rebates to support the renewable industry, advocates are optimistic about the future of renewables in the province.

“What I think people don’t realize right now is that we’re just as strong in renewables as we are in oil and gas,” Taylor said from his office at Kuby Renewable Energy in Edmonton. 

“The same reason why we were a good farming community is the same reason we’re a great solar community. We get a lot of sun here.”

Rowlinson is excited for workers who have been able to make the transition on their own, and he has a message for other oil and gas workers pondering their own future.

“I think [workers] should be pushing their elected leaders to come up with a plan and a strategy that will create jobs that good-paying family supporting jobs in new energy sectors. They should be looking for governments that actually have a plan to do that,” he told The Narwhal.

“They should be looking for governments that will be prepared to come up with meaningful supports for those workers if and when they have to transition out of their current jobs.”

Oil and gas roots

For each of the solar workers we spoke to, their concerns about their children — and the next generation — were big factors in their decision to work in renewables.

“Personally, my interests align with renewables simply because I have children,” Bauer told us. “I want to make sure my children, and their children, have a world to live in.” 

Sandmaier echoes that sentiment. “From what I’ve read and learned about climate change and the possible effects, it really changes the shape of life as we know it for our children,” he said.

But for the solar workers we spoke to, their career path marked a significant detour from the rest of their families and friends.

“Basically my entire background is oil and gas related,” Bauer said.

“My dad has been a gas plant operator from right when I was little. He’s worked shift work — he’d be gone for holidays, birthdays, that type of thing.” 

“For the majority of my career I kind of followed suit. I was working on the road and doing a lot of long shifts — 24 and 4, 36 and 7, you know.”

But Bauer said working in a local solar company gives him the flexibility to get away from the lifestyle associated with life in the oil patch — and the ability to be at home with his family.

Kyle Bauer

Kyle Bauer said working in solar allows him more time at home with his family. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

Upskilling

The sheer number of people working in oil and gas in Alberta is seen by some as less of a long-term risk and more of an opportunity.

“We keep hearing how well situated Alberta is for green energy … and the skillset that’s present in this province, as well as the wealth in the province that could stimulate it,” Wood of Unifor told The Narwhal, noting it’s “a possible lost opportunity.”

That’s where “upskilling” comes in, according to Hildebrand of Iron & Earth.

“It’s really important for people to know that most fossil fuel industry workers are really proud of their trades skills and would be excited — and are excited — about the opportunity to apply those skills to building a sustainable energy future,” he said.

But, he added, “they need support in making that transition.”

That’s where calls on governments to support retraining of workers come in — programs that provide financial support to cover the cost of school, as well as lost income while a person is in training.

“One thing that we’ve been advocating for for a while is a national upskilling initiative: a comprehensive suite of programs that help provide workers with the upskilling they need to enter a range of sustainable energy technologies,” Hildebrand said.

The ‘transition’

Dustin Taylor didn’t want to wait around for an energy transition to displace him and his job.

Facing another downturn in the oil and gas industry, Taylor had decided to enroll in the alternative energy program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

“I got laid off, again, like everybody else, and I just said enough is enough.”

“I made the decision that I was going to go back to school and try to do something that I thought was important with my life, instead of just looking for a job that was going to make me more money,” he said.

Dustin Taylor Kube Renewable Energy Alberta solar

Dustin Taylor. “What I think people don’t realize right now is that we’re just as strong in renewables as we are in oil and gas,” Taylor told The Narwhal. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

Taylor is now married and has two children — a big factor for him in his decision. “Being in oil and gas for such a long time, yeah it was great and it put food on the table,” he said. “But I knew the consequences that came with that industry.” He wasn’t participating in the future he wanted for his kids.

“People have a hard time dealing with change when things have been comfortable for a very long time,” he said. 

“And in Alberta things have been very comfortable for a long, long time. But every few generations we have to deal with something major that has to change, whether it’s the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the computer wave, or climate change,” Taylor added.

“We have to learn to adapt. And it would be nice to see more Albertans get on the bandwagon and see that we can be leaders in this industry.”

Sharon is The Narwhal's Alberta-based investigative journalist. Her essays, interviews and long-form nonfiction have also been published by The Walrus,…

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