Up on the roof: Solar skills, hands-on installations and economic opportunity

Non-profit hopes to retrain oil and gas tradespeople, Indigenous workers in the renewable sector

The transition to a lower-carbon energy future won’t happen overnight. And it certainly won’t happen without a skilled workforce.

That’s where a recently formed non-profit organization like Iron & Earth comes in.

In mid-October, 15 graduates of Iron & Earth’s new solar skills program—aimed at retraining, or “upskilling,” tradespeople for employment in the burgeoning renewable energy sector—offered a glimpse of the future.

The event was held on the reserve of the Louis Bull Tribe, in central Alberta, and featured graduates—including seven members of that community—installing solar panels on the roof of a community daycare facility.

The training program was developed as part of the collaboration platform of Alberta’s Energy Futures Lab in partnership with Iron & Earth, Gridworks Energy Group, and the Louis Bull Tribe. Enbridge and Suncor Energy covered the cost of the solar panels.

“Our community first became interested in solar to reduce costs, but we now see its potential is so much greater,” said Desmond Bull, Councillor of the Louis Bull Tribe. “Renewable energy projects are a tool First Nations can use to create economic opportunities, but also to restore the harmonious relationship that our ancestors had.”

Iron & Earth hopes to upskill 1,000 oil, gas and coal workers—as well as Indigenous community members—as solar specialists through hands-on installations.

A second such course is planned in Newfoundland, and Iron & Earth is also calling on governments to develop a national initiative that will upgrade the skills of a wide range of tradespeople for a host of clean energy and energy efficiency technologies, as part of an “all-of-the-above” energy supply push.

“People act like it’s one versus the other, but in reality, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t support renewable energy and solar technology and the oil and gas industry,” Iron & Earth spokesperson Jen Turner, an oil and gas wellsite contractor, told the Edmonton Journal. “It is absolutely not either-or.”

The Louis Bull Tribe began installing rooftop solar last year, and now has more than 400 panels installed in its community. This infrastructure will save the community over $10,000 in energy bills per year, with another round of solar projects coming to the community soon.

Enbridge has committed more than $7.8 billion in capital to renewable energy and power transmission projects either in operation or under construction—including four solar farms and 18 wind farms—with the capacity to generate and transmit more than 3,900 megawatts (MW) gross of green energy.

“All forms of energy will be needed to meet people’s needs as we shift to a low-carbon economy and we’re doing our part to be involved in that transition. That’s why we are investing in developing this workforce today,” says Kim Brenneis, Enbridge’s Director of Community and Indigenous Engagement.

Enbridge supports education and training initiatives, makes community investments, and provides employment and contracting opportunities to create sustainable benefits in Indigenous communities.

“We are proud to contribute to lasting, positive community impacts, and our investments are a direct reflection of the particular needs of the communities where we operate,” says Brenneis.