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Empowering communities and fossil fuel workers to go green

A worker at a solar farm. Image via freepik

Last summer, Rogan Young Pine travelled through the Northwest Territories installing solar panels on off-grid cabins. His efforts were part of a Canada-wide renewable skills training program led by not-for-profit Iron & Earth to help Indigenous communities and fossil fuel workers gain skills required to work in renewable energy.

During the training, Pine did what it took to get the solar installed. Many of the remote cabins were reachable only by boat, and due to a dry summer, he had to walk great distances with heavy tools when water levels were too low. When fires hit the territory, the schedules shifted.

Ultimately, Pine helped install solar units on cabins in the territory with the Indigenous-owned company he works for, Gonezu Energy. It’s one of a few examples of the renewable skills training program that has taken place so far.

The program teaches participants the skills required to work in renewable industries such as solar and wind. Iron & Earth often partners with community groups to execute the training. In 2023, solar instruction was offered to electricians in N.W.T., and Gonezu Energy’s lead electrician, Carl Squirrel, was certified as an Iron & Earth instructor.

Pine, an electrical apprentice at Gonezu Energy, attended four days of in-class training before his 20-week apprenticeship spent on the off-grid cabin solar project. The company received funding from the territorial government for the cabin retrofits, and an application process was created for Deh Cho First Nation members to have the system installed at a subsidized rate. Pine also participated in a larger solar installation project through the program at the new tourism centre of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation.

The Gonezu Energy installation crew with Samuel Kumson of Kumson Electrical Services at Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation’s On-the-Land camp where Sam helped the Gonezu crew install a 15-kilowatt solar system. From left: Brendan Matto, Augustine Minoza-Lefoin, Sam Kumson, Rogan Young-Pine and Carl Squirrel. Photo submitted

The opportunity to learn about solar power in a classroom and on the job will expand Pine’s current skills as an electrician. He now has experience in off-grid solar system design, storage and installation. Off-grid communities in the N.W.T., as well as in Labrador, Yukon and Nunavik (homeland of the Inuit of Quebec), overwhelmingly depend on diesel, so Pine sees the skills as increasingly relevant as 2030 draws closer, the deadline set by the federal government to get remote communities off fossil fuels.

“I do see a lot of people [who] have to go work at the diamond mine. So, they have to leave town for a couple of weeks,” explained Pine, about the N.W.T. job market, and how many have to leave to find work.

“And with this training … with these skills, we can put out solar and maintain it, right? So, instead of people using gas or diesel generators, we can use solar systems, which are a lot more efficient, and efficient enough so that they don’t need anything else to support electrical demand.”

Last summer, Rogan Young Pine travelled through the Northwest Territories installing solar panels on off-grid cabins as part of a renewable skills training program offered through @IronAndEarth.

The training program helps more than the individual, explained Jason Collard, CEO of Gonezu Energy. Renewable energy projects, specifically in the North, are often done by outside contractors, he noted. When that happens, locals don’t have the skills to maintain the technology, which can leave a community with a stranded asset instead of local contractors gaining the knowledge of how to both build and care for the infrastructure.

While the training program was largely focused on expanding the skill of electricians to include solar installation, there was also a portion geared for the cabin owners, who learned about their system and how to perform basic maintenance.

From offshore oil to solar

Alan Savard, who left the offshore oil industry in 2021, says opportunities for fossil fuel workers to expand their skills are a no-brainer. Savard participated in the renewable training program in 2022 in Maskwacis, Alta., where he learned solar basics in a classroom setting and helped install a ground-mounted solar PV system at Maskwacis Cultural College.

Savard worked on offshore oil platforms all around the world but left after years of seeing the industry’s environmental toll. He now works in sales for a trucking company, but his long-term goal is to start his own solar company.

“The first time I went up to Fort McMurray, I thought, look at the devastation and the smell and I can’t believe this is what we’re doing to this planet. And then, you see your first paycheque and you’re up there for two weeks and you make $6,000,” he said.

“You kind of look the other way, but eventually, when you start seeing things … you start questioning. Yeah, I’m getting a good paycheque, but at the end of the day, where is this going?”

Alan Savard. Photo submitted

At the same time, those high-paying oilpatch jobs will diminish as the energy transition accelerates. Environmental Defence notes, “Jobs in the oilsands and oil production in Canada are set to decrease by at least 93 per cent between 2025 and 2050, regardless of what climate policies are in place.”

A 2021 report from the Centre for Future Work found that 33,000 fossil fuel jobs were lost between 2014 and 2019, but for each one that disappeared, 42 positions were created in other sectors. With the right planning, the phaseout of oil and gas could be executed without workers facing unemployment, the report concludes.

Meanwhile, Savard said fossil fuel workers already obtain a multitude of transferable skills that, with the right training, could allow them a relatively seamless transition into clean industries, such as solar.

“Taking all that knowledge that I’ve learned and putting it in has made it a lot simpler than somebody that I believe hasn’t done that,” he said.

There is pushback in Alberta, where Savard and many other past and present fossil fuel workers live, he notes.

“Being a person in Alberta, where oil and gas and is everything I know, [I’m] trying to be the guy that’s trying to say, ‘Hey, we don’t need this,’ when our premier is the biggest opponent of solar and wind power,” he said, referencing the province’s current moratorium on renewables.

“[Premier Danielle Smith] just wants to improve every coal and every natural gas and oil production possible. We have to transition, we have to be open-minded to how we make it work so we can save this planet.”

Cloe Logan
Cloe Logan
  Cloe Logan is Canada's National Observer's Atlantic reporter covering climate, the environment and politics. Cloe has also contributed to reporting on federal policy thanks to a grant from the Local Journalism Initiative and the Government of Canada.
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