Alberta's solar-power sector can't keep up with demand for training … – Edmonton Sun


August 20, 2016 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Uncategorized


In his late 20s, Brandon Sandmaier had a steady job with decent pay in the oil industry, working as a heavy vehicle technician.

Now he’s a poster boy for Alberta’s shift toward alternative energy.

In 2014, the oil industry had yet to begin its dizzying free fall, but Sandmaier was re-evaluating his life.

He needed a new challenge and, with two young sons at home, wanted a career with a more positive impact on the world.

Many colleagues questioned why he would quit to study in a fledgling industry. Even he had reservations about whether the sector was big enough for a job in Canada, let alone Alberta.

Now Sandmaier, along with a fellow graduate from the NAIT alternative energy course, runs Generate Energy, a thriving solar power business, and the 33-year-old can only see the sector expanding.

Eight prospective students scramble for every available seat in the NAIT course Sandmaier took and, over at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), a solar installation course covered by union dues can’t keep up with demand.

As provincial training director with the IBEW in Edmonton, Todd Chrunik sees the enthusiasm for solar firsthand.

Historically, Albertan IBEW members helped build the oilsands, he says, but younger members in particular see renewable energy as a natural progression for the electrical trade.

That resulting interest in solar has grown course waiting lists “as long as your arm.”

“They know this is the future and they’re excited, they really are,” Chrunik says.

Training in solar power installation had been kicking around in the back of Scott Crichton’s mind for years before he signed up for the IBEW training course.

“It’s starting to create a whole new industry that people just weren’t quite ready for 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s an amazing time.”

While the IBEW and NAIT courses are markedly different, Crichton and Sandmaier have a similar take on life after training: both have been blown away by the interest in renewables.

“One of the coolest things I’ve seen is that you get one house with solar panels on it, then everyone else on the street takes an interest in it and they want to do that too,” Crichton says.

Sandmaier’s business has turned its focus to rural communities, where more people are thinking solar.

Baby boomers have shown particular interest, which surprised Sandmaier given that the cost of installing solar panels means it takes years to see a return on investment.

“They’re very interested in having this technology and being a part of this movement,” he says. “They see it as valuable and a legacy.”

Alberta came late to the renewables party, but Jim Sandercock, chair of NAIT’s alternative energy program, thinks the province can easily learn from the lessons of other jurisdictions and avoid some of the speed bumps.

Take Ontario, for instance.

“They dropped into the game in 2009, but the cost of solar and cost of wind has dropped anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent since then,” Sandercock says. “As a consequence, on a provincial scale, it’s going to cost us a lot less to get into renewables.”

The Alberta government is mulling over changes to renewables as part of its climate leadership plan, and Sandmaier hopes tax rebates for consumers are on the table.

He sees a future in which solar will grow in Alberta, with more jobs, distributors and manufacturers in the province.

“A lot of people will pose the challenge between solar and oil companies, but … the solar industry can grow completely alongside the oil industry with no effect on either,” he says.

“Albertans are a pretty cool bunch and they take value in growing and getting into different markets.”

egraney@postmedia.com

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