By David Pichard
New leadership means big changes for energy policy in the U.S.—and possibly the world. Biden’s $2-trillion campaign plans to bring the U.S. electric grid to 100 percent[i] zero-carbon resources by 2035, reflecting a monumental shift in federal policies boosting renewables across the country. The momentum is clear: oil and coal economies will slowly diminish, and big investments in green infrastructure are on the way.
The U.S. can look to the north to see how Alberta has successfully transitioned thousands of oil and gas workers to power Canada’s solar and wind industries. Reviewing Alberta’s fossil transition, historically traditional energy states like Pennsylvania and others can apply its strategies for success.
Refocusing Skills through Education and Advocacy
For decades, Alberta’s economy was dominated by fossil exploitation tapping the world’s third-largest oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. A crash in oil prices and imploding global demand (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) have taken a toll on Canada’s oil industry. [ii]
As of 2018, the US Oil and gas industry employed 153,000 people. The U.S. fracking boom and 2014 oil price crash resulted in 53,000 jobs lost between 2014 and 2019.
But today, Alberta’s renewable sector employs an estimated 26,000 people (directly and indirectly), and analysts predict as many as 20,000 new jobs will come online by 2030.
So, what lessons can we glean from Alberta’s transformed energy sector?
According to education non-profit Solar Alberta, government-funded education, economic development and advocacy are key in supporting Alberta’s transition. Most post-secondary institutions in Alberta, including University of Calgaryand University of Alberta, as well as technical colleges like the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology offer continuing education in renewables. Government grants subsidize 30 percent of tuition cost for these programs.
Alberta’s industry organizations are also providing reskilling programs for tradespeople and professionals making the move into renewables. Solar Alberta enrolls upwards of 650 continuing education students a year – a clear sign of the need for skilled workers in both the trades and engineering.
Advocacy group Iron & Earth was founded by oil sands workers to help Canadians shift from industrial trades to those more tailored to a sustainable energy future. The organization calls for a $110-billion federal investment program to support a “green and prosperous” transition, helping energy workers gain the skills “to build the new, net-zero economy.” Its strategy combines community building, career and skill transitioning, fundraising, and demonstration projects to showcase success.
Where Alberta has Gone, Pennsylvania—and Others—can Follow
Energy-abundant Pennsylvania has been one of the leading producers of coal for over 200 years. It is the third largest supplier of coal and electricity in the country. Pennsylvania was also one of the first states to advance an alternative energy portfolio standard to incentivize its renewable sector.
Analysts estimate the state’s clean-energy market represents a $16 to $20 billion investment opportunity, with 72,000 potential jobs in energy efficiency and renewables[iii]. Clean energy jobs in the state grew by nearly 7,800 between 2017 and 2019, while coal, natural gas and nuclear industries saw losses of nearly 2,500 jobs over the same period[iv].
In 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf signed executive orders establishing the first statewide goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—mandating a 26 percent reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 (from 2005 levels) and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
The Special Shine of Solar
Solar has a major role to play as Pennsylvania creates its renewable energy future. Drivers like community solar programs are creating opportunities—especially in construction, hospitality, health care, and other sectors hard hit by the pandemic. According to a recent Penn State study[v], community solar would create 12,000 jobs and generate a $1.8-billion economic impact.
Again, Alberta has lessons to share. The province has committed to phase out coal by 2030—opening the door for solar and wind to play a larger role. Analysts predict that 83 percent of the utility-scale wind and solar capacity built in Canada over the next five years will be in Alberta, with solar representing 1.8 GW by 2025.
Pennsylvania’s traditional energy sector workers are just as skilled, motivated and retrainable as Albertans. Harnessing their experience, commitment and skill will drive solar success in the Keystone State just as it has in Alberta.
The regions’ similar climates and topographies mean that solar design and operational experience gained in Canada is imminently transferrable. While not as extreme as Alberta, Pennsylvania experiences harsh winters—with up to 100 inches of annual snowfall and temperatures as low as 19°F (-7.2°C).
The Know-How to Turn Experience into Excellence
When developing solar projects in regions that are transitioning from fossils to renewables, it’s smart to choose an EPC partner with experience leveraging the skills in oil and gas construction.
Both sectors face similar challenges. The work is often done in remote sites, sometimes in frigid conditions where frequent warm-up breaks are a safety necessity. And both face the challenge of keeping teams motivated in cold and adverse conditions.
PV and oil and gas draw on common trades, like framers to assemble racking structure, welders for adjusting steel foundations elevations, electricians and others. They use similar construction equipment, and both involve ground foundation and disturbance civil work requiring specialized training. When building utility-solar projects, EPCs with the right know-how can gain efficiencies using crews from the fossil fuel sectors with experience in large-scale construction.
The safety and training culture, which is intensive and well-developed in oil, gas and coal plant construction and operations, can elevate safety standards and practices across utility-PV projects.
Building on a Strong Foundation
Developers looking at projects on rugged terrains and harsh environments - whether in Alberta or the northern U.S—can benefit from racking and tracking technologies built for such conditions. Products designed for reliability in extreme conditions, using structural-grade materials with superior galvanizing, can offer unique advantages. Trackers and fixed racking with customizable foundations, including helical piles, driven piles or ground screws options, offer flexibility to install reliable solar assets on any terrain.
Alberta has shown that moving away from oil and gas opens the door to clean-energy jobs and economic growth. Developing and building profitable PV projects with partners experienced in transitioning economies can accelerate the transition to a brighter future.
David Pichard is CEO of GP JOULE North America – an EPC provider and racking manufacturer. GP JOULE is an active participant in Alberta’s booming PV market and brings its expertise building utility-scale solar in tough northern conditions to regions across the U.S.