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New Solar Farm, Wind Technician Training Course Show Renewables Surging in Alberta

Year-end news coverage in Alberta pointed to an emerging surge in renewable energy development in the country’s most fossil-dependent province, with western Canada’s first utility-scale solar project going online and former oil and gas workers waxing enthusiastic about retraining as wind turbine technicians.

In Brooks, Alberta, a C$30-million, 30-hectare, 50,000-panel solar farm went into production in December, generating enough electricity to power 3,000 homes. The project developer, Vancouver-based Elemental Energy Inc., is taking pride in using a site that also houses an active oil pumpjack, a sour gas well, natural gas pipelines, an Internet fibre optic cable, and an agricultural irrigation ditch, CBC reports.

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“This area is agriculture and oil and gas, but it’s really just resources,” and solar “is just another resource,” said Elemental’s Project Investments Director Graeme Millen. “It’s a fantastic showcase for diverse resource development on Alberta land.”

A CBC reporter visited the site on one of the shortest days of the year, after a few days of winter precipitation, when the panels were half covered in snow—but they were still delivering a limited amount of electricity.

“In the event it snows, you lose production, for sure. The good news is in this part of the world, in southeast Alberta, it doesn’t snow that much compared to a lot of other jurisdictions,” Millen noted. “The snow is light so it blows off with the winds we have, and because we get so many sunny days. Once the sun starts shining, the snow melts quite quickly.” 

While the Brooks project is setting records for now, CBC notes that Alberta and Saskatchewan expect to invest $50 billion in renewable energy development through 2030. But even with many larger projects in the works, “it’s pretty exciting for our community,” said Reeve Molly Douglass of the County of Newell. “The county has had a lot of linear taxation with oil and gas over the years, and it’s always good to diversify our income streams. That’s something we’ve talked about for a long time.”

The main surprise for locals, she added, was how quickly the project was built—in just seven months, though initial planning began five years ago.

At Lethbridge College, meanwhile, laid-off oil and gas technicians like Mark Kokas are enrolling in the region’s only one-year certificate program for one of North America’s fastest-growing job categories.

Oil and gas used to be our bread and butter, but it isn’t anymore,” Kokas told The Canadian Press. “It’s been an eye-opener going into a different industry. There’s more than oil and gas. It’s pretty cool.”

“I’ve just seen how the world is going and how Alberta is changing from oilfields going to renewable energy,” agreed student Oscar Diaz-Kennedy, who previously worked in landscaping and construction. “I decided I wanted to be ahead of the loop a little bit.”

CP notes that the technician training course comes with an online caution, advising potential students not to apply if they’re afraid of heights.

“Most [courses] don’t have a warning label. We do,” said instructor Chris DeLisle. “Our students end up working in an office 300 feet in the air, so obviously safety is a big priority.”