Tradespeople working in Canada’s oil sands have created their own organization to provide training in renewable energy. Positioning themselves at the forefront of a bourgeoning industry, they are seeking to realize a vision for a more sustainable future.
Over the six years that Lliam Hildebrand worked in Alberta’s oil sands, he regularly broached a subject around the lunch table that he expected to be taboo: renewable energy. But Hildebrand, a journeyman welder and steel fabricator based in Victoria, British Columbia, found that the topic was front of mind for many workers, himself included.
“I’ve always been environmentally minded, and always had a bit of a personal struggle with working in the oil sands and the contributions to climate change,” Hildebrand says. “I found in the conversations I was having with the tradespeople up there, it was a shared experience… they’re interested in innovation and technology and they care about the future of the planet for their children.”
Hildebrand previously worked at a steel fabricating shop in Victoria, B.C., building pressure vessels for the oil sands and ship loaders for coal terminals. Later, he watched the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth while working on a windfarm weather station at the shop. He realized that tradespeople could play a key role in building renewable energy infrastructure. “I started on a path to try and figure out how to make these things work in sync with each other,” he says.
His lunchtime conversations, combined with the atmosphere in Alberta – falling oil prices have led to massive job losses, while the provincial government has introduced a new climate policy – then encouraged Hildebrand to act.
He formally launched Iron & Earth, a worker-led initiative aiming to train tradespeople in renewable energy, in March 2016. Oil and gas workers have transferable skills, the organization posits, and they want to be part of building a greener energy industry in Canada. So why not help them get supplemental training to join this bourgeoning industry?
“It’s about time Canada starts diversifying our energy grid,” says Hildebrand, now executive director of Iron & Earth. “We can build products we’re proud of and contribute to preventing global warming – and provide greater economic security and energy stability in Canada.”
A shared vision
The organization is led by Hildebrand and four directors – all tradespeople – who have worked or are working in Alberta. More than 450 members from various trades have joined Iron & Earth and expressed interest in training programs, including boilermakers, electricians, pipe fitters, ironworkers and labourers.
Joseph Bacsu, a third-generation boilermaker in Alberta, shared many lunchtime conversations with Hildebrand, and ultimately agreed with his vision. Bacsu also recognized that a transition to green energy could fill a need inherent to oil-related jobs. The boom and bust cycles of the oil sands mean that workers crave consistent employment. “People want the work, they want to be trained, and they want to be called upon when these jobs [in renewable energy] are available. It’s a no brainer,” Bacsu says.
He is now a director of Iron & Earth and has seen many workers, including his father, a 35-year industry veteran, join the organization. “[My father’s] thoughts are the same as mine,” Bacsu says. “If I could be somewhere doing what I’m doing now, but knowing I’m making a better earth, why wouldn’t I?”
Retraining electricians to work on solar projects
Iron & Earth held a formal launch in Edmonton, Alberta this March, in which it called on the provincial government to support its solar skills campaign, retraining 1,000 out of work electricians from the oil sands sector to install solar technologies. Hildebrand says the organization has since met with various staff working for the provincial government’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Ministry of Labour, and Ministry of Environment and Parks, as well as the federal government’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
It is hoped that those meetings will spur support and funding for Iron & Earth’s initial work: ten solar projects to be completed at ten high schools across Alberta, involving installation of photovoltaics, solar heat, energy retrofits and optimizations, and an electrical vehicle charging station.
Tradespeople accepted in the solar training program will spend three weeks at a high school installing the systems. “It’s going to provide a better learning experience for tradespeople, and will help subsidize the cost of installations,” Hildebrand says. The initial ten projects will serve as a test, allowing the team to develop a model they can replicate on another 90 solar projects, to be completed quicker. Iron & Earth sees future potential for work in other areas, including wind, geothermal and biomass energy.
Workers have a voice
Other initiatives are underway, too. Bacsu has met with representatives from the German embassy and hopes to tour renewable energy co-operatives in that country. Another Iron & Earth director, electrician Adam Cormier, has travelled to his home province of Newfoundland and found an “overwhelming” amount of interest there among workers who fly back and forth between homes on the east coast and jobs in Alberta’s oil sands.
Hildebrand hopes that the organization will help contribute to his “dream scenario” of one day having a thriving renewable energy economy in Alberta and across Canada. It will take trained workers to get there, and that is what Hildebrand is focused on right now.
For too long, Hildebrand says, conversations around renewable energy have been polarizing. “It’s always the jobs versus the environment,” he says. “As workers, we’ve realized for a long time that is a false dichotomy, and we are no longer willing to wait around for someone else to lead the conversation. Workers are really excited about finally having a voice.”