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Oilfield workers ready to adapt skills to renewable energy infrastructure

Peter Kenter
Oilfield workers ready to adapt skills to renewable energy infrastructure

Given the choice between fossil fuel energy and renewables, trade organization Iron & Earth has a simple answer: both. The not-for-profit initiative was launched in 2016 and is led by oilsands workers who are committed to building Canada’s energy future while continuing to benefit from the country’s fossil fuel advantage today. Achieving that goal means adapting the skill sets of oilpatch workers to the renewable energy sector.

Lliam Hildebrand is director of strategy for Iron & Earth. His specialty is steel fabrication and for the past 10 years, he’s built everything from bridges and boats to oilsands pressure vessels and components for wind farms.

"When I left the fabricating shop eight years ago I found work in the oilsands during spring shutdown, which supplied amazing amounts of concentrated work for three months," he says.

"During the rest of the year I was hoping to find renewable energy work, but it wasn’t a big enough industry to provide significant work for welders and steel fabricators such as myself. With today’s emphasis on renewable energy, we believe it’s time to concentrate on ensuring that manufacturers and contractors develop the capabilities to support these technologies and that tradespeople are trained to be employed by them."

The leap for tradespeople into manufacturing, installation and maintenance of renewable energy systems is often minor. Hildebrand has built biomass plants without additional training.

"However, if I were asked to install a tower at a wind farm, the learning curve could be flattened by taking a five-day hands-on training program," he says.

The organization’s Workers’ Climate Plan Report advocates a four-point program to help make the switch, including: a rapid upscaling of trade workers’ skills through hands-on five-day training programs; providing retooling support for businesses; and marshalling support from stakeholders in the renewable energy sector, including building trade unions and contractors.

"We’re also advocating for the repurposing of oil and gas infrastructure for renewables," says Hildebrand. "For example, underutilized or unused wells could be used to harness geothermal energy."

Iron & Earth’s first effort is concentrated on transferring the skills of energy sector electricians to installing solar panels.

It’s partnering with Gridworks Energy Group, a solar photovoltaic specialist that also offers training programs, to devise a five-day course to develop those skills. Initial programs will concentrate on indigenous communities and involve both First Nations electricians and oil and gas workers. The proof of concept will be tested on Oct. 2, 2017 with three days of in-class training and two installing solar panels for the Louis Bull Tribe, one of four First Nations in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton.

"There’s a real advantage for job applicants to say they’ve installed an actual solar system over saying they’ve learned how to install a mock-up in a workshop," says Hildebrand.

Jen Turner has worked on rigs for the past eight years as a consultant who assists in supervising drilling. She joined Iron & Earth this year as director of communications.

"Pretty much everyone who works on a senior level on a rig is a self-employed contractor," she says. "I’ve worked very hard to make it to this point in my career but faced a year of no calls and cancelled projects. I have a great support system but a lot of people in the oilpatch suffered quietly and profoundly. You can talk about carbon credits all day, but if you don’t address the problems of the people on the ground, you’re missing a huge piece of the problem."

She says she was also attracted to Iron & Earth because it avoids the harsh rhetoric that informs many debates about carbon-based energy and renewables.

"A lot of these issues have become ridiculously polarized," she says. "There’s much more ground to be won by focusing on transitions."

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