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These Oil Industry Workers Now Teach Their Colleagues How To Install Solar

As the oil industry collapses, Iron and Earth wants to use oil workers skill sets to create a more renewable energy system.

These Oil Industry Workers Now Teach Their Colleagues How To Install Solar
[Photo: Joan Sullivan]

As oil prices crashed in 2015 and jobs began to disappear in Canada’s tar sands, a group of local workers started thinking about a new opportunity: how to retrain fellow oil and gas workers to work in renewable energy instead.

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“I was always really passionate about the environment and the potential for renewable energy, and I discovered through years of conversations with coworkers that a lot of them were passionate about renewable energy as well,” says Lliam Hildebrand, who began working in the oil sands about seven years ago and is director of strategy and engagement for the grassroots organization behind the training programs, Iron and Earth. “It just struck me as really interesting–the stereotype of workers compared to who these workers were and what their perspectives were.”

Lliam Hildebrand [Photo: Jamie Tanner]
By 2015, shifting to jobs in renewables began to seem like a necessity. “I was on a job at Fort McMurray [in Alberta, Canada], and every single conversation up there was, What are we going to do? All of our new construction jobs are getting canceled. This is obviously not going to be the industry that sustains our careers until we retire, anymore. That’s not the world that we’re living in. We started to look at renewable energy a little more seriously, and trying to figure where the investments were going.”

A report in 2016 estimated that since oil prices collapsed, Canada has lost roughly 40,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry. In December 2016, Statoil, a Norwegian company, sold its tar sands assets at a loss. Koch Industries ended plans for a new project. In 2017, Imperial Oil wrote down 2.8 billion barrels of reserves in Alberta because it couldn’t make the economics of extracting the oil work. ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil admitted that billions of their own reserves would likely have to stay in the ground. Shell sold off its tar sands assets for $7.25 billion. At the same time, investment in renewable energy in Canada is growing.

[Photo: Joan Sullivan]
Iron and Earth is now running short solar training programs for oil and gas workers who want new options. “Our approach is really that so many of the tradespeople that work in the oil sands are highly skilled, and really require only a few days of specialized training for solar energy and potentially other renewable energy technologies as well,” Hildebrand says.

In the first five-day course, in October, 15 trainees installed solar panels at a community daycare on tribal land in Alberta. A similar course happened in November. The organization plans to train 1,000 oil and gas workers in its first campaign.

Hildebrand says that, as someone in the industry, he’s had success in organizing that he doesn’t think he would have had if he’d come in as an outside activist. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this work if I hadn’t worked in the oil sands,” he says. “My time on site is what has really shaped my perspective of what’s possible and what workers are interested in and what kind of support they might need.”

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While he had a “relatively radical” vision for Canada’s energy future before he started working at Fort McMurray, his view has shifted to something more pragmatic. He isn’t calling for an immediate end to production in the oil fields, recognizing that people rely on it for their livelihoods. But he acknowledges that emissions will need to reach net zero by 2050. The organization’s goal is to make that transition happen smoothly for communities and the environment.

Jobs in renewable energy are growing in the area. “It is just starting to increase exponentially,” he says. “Everything that we hear from solar companies is that we’re just entering the tip of an exponential curve.”

The organization is opening new chapters across Canada, and hopes to expand into the U.S. A suite of skilled jobs–from ironworkers and crane workers to scaffolders and boilermakers–could transition relatively easily from fossil fuel industries to renewable energy. As coal plants are retired, former coal plant operators could also make the shift.

“Wherever there’s workers getting laid off from the building trade/maintenance side of a coal power plant, they are very well positioned, quite likely, to enter the renewable energy sector,” Hildebrand says. “We’ll try to provide that support wherever possible.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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