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Workin' Your Way Up: Is Canada generating enough workers to handle its wind energy goals?


Does Canada have the skills, training and human resources to keep the rapidly growing wind power generating system going? Over the past two years, the number of wind turbines installed in the country, and the power generated by them, has tripled — and it could triple again in the next two years.

So are we ready? We’re working on it.

Growth in wind power
The Canadian power generation industry added 690 megawatts (MW) of wind power generation capacity in 2010, according to CanWEA, the Canadian Wind Energy Association. Wind power’s banner year, though, was 2009, when 950 MW worth of new power capacity came on-stream. As of March 2011, the 2,570 wind turbines in 131 wind farms across Canada produce some 4,155 MW.

And growth will continue, says Stephen Rach, supply chain manager with CanWEA. Plans by power generation utilities and companies will increase total capacity by another 7,800 MW by 2015 — a 200-percent growth. “Quebec is one of the more advanced markets for power generation,” he says, but there are significant plans for more wind turbines in almost every province. CanWEA reports that new projects have been built in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

CanWEA’s Wind Vision plan states that wind power could provide 20 percent of Canada’s total energy demand by 2025, or an additional 55,000 MW of energy per year — an 11-fold increase over the next 14 years. If this comes to pass, the construction industry will generate $79 billion in investment, creating an estimated 52,000 jobs.

The question is, assuming that Canada can generate or attract the capital needed to build this investment, “Does the country have the human resources needed to maintain the turbines?”

A new career
When Chris Offshack was looking for a new career after stints as a computer network engineer in Silicon Valley and the owner of a fishing lodge outside of Kingston, Ont., news that St. Lawrence College was launching a wind turbine technician program grabbed his attention.

“It really excited me, and the first day I saw they were taking applications, I applied,” he explains. “Being a guy running a fishing lodge, I felt like I got a little bit closer to nature and the environment. I saw the real need for alternative energy.”

This spring, the 37-year-old will be part of the program’s first graduating class. The two-year course is taught at St. Lawrence College’s Kingston campus, which celebrated the opening of a new state-of-the-art Wind Turbine and Trades Training Facility last October.

St. Lawrence is the first college in Ontario with a wind turbine technician program, says Shannon Claggett, associate dean of applied science and computing, and its approach is unique in Canada. With the commissioning of the nearby 197.8 MW Wolfe Island Wind Farm in 2009, and Ontario’s push to bring more green electricity online, creating a program targeted at the wind industry “just seemed to be the next logical step,” she says.

Wind turbine maintenance
“As a rule of thumb, every two megawatts of generating capacity needs one turbine technician to keep it operating,” explains Ron Papp, a wind power industry expert at Lethbridge College in Alberta, and the man who developed the college’s wind power technician program.

Maintaining a wind turbine in optimal condition requires a unique set of skills. It’s a unique installation: an 80-tonne turbine and generator, suspended on a tower 80 metres above the ground. Maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) require a technician that knows not only electricity and electronics but is very aware of safety and can work in cramped conditions far less than optimal.

“Students entering the wind turbine technician program need to have good math and English skills, and they have to be in good physical health,” Papp says. They also must either have a high school diploma or pass an entrance exam.

The program is dual stream: the first year includes the same course material and training that is given in the first-year electrician program, allowing students to change to the electrician program after the first year if they decide that working in cramped, electrified environments 80 metres off the ground isn’t for them.

In addition, the program teaches mechanics, hydraulics, electronics, computers, rigging and cranes, management of a wind turbine farm and a rigorous safety component.

At any given time, there are 32 students in one of two semesters; every six months, about 15 or 16 will graduate. There is a waiting list to enter the program, as well. Nearly all graduates find work quickly in the field. “Within three months of graduating, 80 to 90 percent of our graduates find work in the field,” Papp says. “Fifty percent find employment before graduating.”

Northern Lights College, located in Dawson Creek, B.C., also offers a wind turbine technician program. It, too, requires a high school diploma or an entry exam. The course covers the electrical and mechanical aspects of wind turbines, and like the Lethbridge College program, it also stresses safety. Last year, 15 students graduated from the program. “Most graduates will find work in the industry, especially if they’re willing to travel,” says instructor Duane Mitchell.

St. Lawrence College’s program is similar, combining a registered industrial electrician apprenticeship with a wind turbine technician diploma, a combination that increases employment options for graduates. “It gives them a little bit more knowledge,” Claggett says.

With St. Lawrence College, its new training facility has five turbine nacelles for students to work on, as well as a fiberglass shop to teach blade repair techniques. An advisory committee made of representatives of wind energy and industrial electrician companies guides the program. The college works with industry in other ways as well, says Claggett. Staff at TransAlta’s Wolfe Island project teaches an on-site course on SCADA, a system used to monitor and control the wind turbine plant. Claggett is also looking to the industry to provide co-op placements for students between the first and second years.

Most colleges’ wind power technician programs, including St. Lawrence College’s, also allow students to obtain the internationally recognized BZEE certificate, which enables them to work in the field abroad.

“Many of the employers in this industry are international companies,” Lethbridge’s Papp says. “So we also have the requirement that students be mobile and have a passport.” This allows them to go on work placements or specific training courses, sponsored by the industry, in the U.S. The Lethbridge program also attracts about a quarter of its students from outside Alberta, even as far afield as the U.S., China and Europe.

Supply and demand for skilled labour
Are there enough technicians being trained to maintain all the turbines spinning today and the ones that will be built in the next five years? “I think we should be okay,” CanWEA’s Rach says.

But let’s look at that: according to Ron Papp, one technician is needed for every two megawatts of wind power generating capacity. With an additional 7,800 MW of capacity coming on line in the next four to five years, there will be another 3,900 technicians needed just to keep the system going.

Last December, PEM reported another 600 jobs would open up in Ontario in next two years due to offshore wind production; even though the provincial government has shelved that project — at least for now — there is still a huge demand for new skilled labour.

According to CanWEA, there are 18 educational institutions across the country that offer programs to train wind turbine technicians, technologists, engineers managers and other specialists, from Memorial University of Newfoundland to community colleges such as Lethbridge College and Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C. In addition, a handful of private instructional companies offer workshops in maintaining wind turbines and managing wind generation facilities.

Even if every college and university that offers wind energy generation programs graduates 30 new technicians a year, that’s 540 per year; over the next five years, that’s 2,770 — when current plans require at least 3,900 more technicians for the turbines being built between now and 2015, and 11 times that number by 2025 if CanWEA’s Wind Vision becomes true.

Opportunities
Today, the MRO for wind power generation for Canada is dominated by the manufacturers of the turbines themselves, or by large international maintenance companies. These firms have the size and flexibility that allows them to bring in skills from other countries, when needed, and to participate in training. “The company maintaining the wind turbines here brought in five technicians from Germany when they started,” Northern Lights’ Mitchell says. “Since then, they’ve hired four techs locally, and currently have six in total.”

But with the rapid growth projected in the industry, there is clearly a huge opportunity for MRO providers — not only for more contracts, but also to participate in developing the educational programs for the skills they need their employees to have.

For his part, Offshack — among St. Lawrence College’s first graduates — is open to a wide range of potential job opportunities after graduation. “It will be really exciting for me to go into work each day and know I’m helping make clean energy and doing something good for the world.”


Scott Bury is a freelance writer based in Kanata, Ont. The article includes statistics and reporting provided by CanWEA.