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Reskilling To Renewables From Oil & Gas — CleanTechnica Interview

As fossil fuel industry jobs falter, renewable energy offers hope for workers. An interview with the Natel Energy founder describes what the new landscape of energy employment can look like.

The US fossil fuel industry is under significant pressure as the country moves toward cleaner forms of energy. Challenged by efforts to integrate climate priorities into the policy landscape, to provide low-cost renewable generation, and to allay investor concerns about financial risk, the fossil fuel industry has been facing increasing numbers of layoffs– even before the covid-19 crisis hit. Policymakers have been scrambling to keep up with the traditional energy industry’s downturn and quell a brewing sense of worker resentment and hopelessness. Can reskilling from the fossil fuel industry make the needed difference?

Interview with Gia Schneider of Natel Energy

Many people are optimistic about the possibilities for reskilling workers from the fossil fuel industry into renewable energy fields. One such person is hydropower expert and founder of Natel Energy, Gia Schneider. We reached out to her to talk about the role younger generations will play in pushing renewable energy forward and about the importance of reskilling from oil and gas in order to fill future roles in renewable energy.

2020 IRENA report says hydropower has the largest installed capacity of all renewables. The sector employs close to 2 million people directly, many in operations and maintenance. Yet hydropower has been critiqued for its significant impact on the environment. How can hydropower reconcile its difficult environmental past with sustainable energy needs of the future?

The Natel Energy website allows that:

“Conventional approaches to hydropower did not always adequately consider the ecosystem impacts of large structures — but major shifts in the hydropower industry are underway. On October 13, 2020, the hydropower industry and river community signed a historic Joint Statement of Collaboration to discuss ways to maximize hydropower’s climate benefits, while mitigating the environmental impact of conventional dams and supporting environmental restoration.

Schneider’s insights into reskilling, hydropower, and the future in renewable energy offer new ideas and approaches to energy employment. Here’s our CleanTechnica interview with Schneider.

What are some new and innovative reskilling job opportunities in the renewable energy fields?

With changing water patterns – more extreme precipitation events, shift of precipitation from snow to rain, etc. – there is a growing and critical need to update our nation’s water infrastructure to meet the energy and sustainability needs of the future.

Based on a 2016 assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), it’s estimated that the US needs to invest an additional $82 billion per year in water infrastructure at all levels of government over the next 10 years to meet projected infrastructure needs. If this investment gap were closed, it would result in over $220 billion in total annual economic activity to the country. These investments would generate and sustain approximately 1.3 million jobs over the 10- year period.

Additionally, there’s a growing need for jobs in rural areas of the US. The Freshwater Trust, a conservation group active in watershed restoration, for example, is aiming to put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in rural jobs outdoors to assist in the nation’s recovery, while improving its environmental and economic resiliency. These jobs will increase food security and resiliency, improve drinking water quality, and decrease flood, drought, and forest fire risks. The result is an efficient, scaled national impact on regional employment – one that benefits the environment and the economy.

What skills from the oil industry are transferable to the renewable energy field?

Skills that are easily transferred from the oil and gas industry to renewable energy include project managers, safety supervisors, electricians, and mechanical service technicians. The hydropower industry, and, indeed, all renewable energy industries, need skilled mechanical and electrical labor to build, operate, and maintain plants.

What is an example of an in-demand reskilling job that would be a good fit for a former fossil fuel worker?

Project management. Developing renewable energy projects requires being able to juggle a lot of different requirements and processes that have to be managed in parallel to, ultimately, result in a project being built on time and on budget.

Why should workers want to invest time and energy into reskilling?

The global covid-19 pandemic has been a prime example of why reskilling is so important. A recent study from Randstad Research found that many workers are struggling to acquire the necessary skills to remain relevant in a constantly evolving labor market.

As digitization, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to disrupt the workforce, some jobs will become obsolete. In addition, the kinds of skills companies require are going to shift, with a big impact on the career paths individuals decide to take.

Additionally, as the climate change crisis continues, and the US focuses more on clean energy options, the job opportunities and growth within traditional energy sectors will drop-off. If done properly and with care, reskilling can ensure that new jobs replace and even add onto those that are lost in the transition.

How can underrepresented groups — like people of color, native peoples, and females — take advantage of job openings in renewable energy?

Currently, the hydropower industry employs a higher percentage of minorities and military veterans than are found in the US working-age population, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Center for the New Energy economy. While the industry is predominantly male and white, the study found that people of color make up 32% of the hydropower workforce.

There is a high degree of awareness and prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in many companies active in renewable energy. The renewable energy industry as a whole has a progressive bend toward climate and DEI. The industry does have a lot of work to do to bring reality in-line with aspirations. However, it is a useful tailwind that there is a high aspiration for diversity.

Another data point that can point to accessibility of underrepresented groups to jobs in renewable energy was called out in a Brookings Institute Report in 2019:

“Even when they have higher pay, many occupations within the clean energy economy tend to have lower educational requirements. This is especially true within the clean energy production and energy efficiency sectors, which include sizable occupations like electricians, carpenters, and plumbers. Roughly 50 percent of workers attain no more than a high school diploma yet earn higher wages than similarly-educated peers in other industries.”

Please explain the ecosystem effects of hydropower through this graphic.

reskilling

Climate change is water change. Water is one of the primary ways by which climate change impacts us – too much water, too little water, at the wrong time, in the wrong phase. Through water, many of the challenges of climate change are magnified and linked.

Snow shifts to rain, reducing an important source of watershed storage that helps smooth out water discharge over time. More intense rain in degraded watersheds exacerbates erosion, further degrading the watershed and reducing water quality. Rain runs off degraded watersheds more quickly resulting in flooding and decreasing groundwater recharge. Decreasing groundwater recharge reduces the ability of groundwater to smooth out water discharge across time and to provide a buffer during drought. Higher temperatures combined with more nutrients from agricultural runoff lead to harmful algae blooms, degrading water quality.

Hydropower sits at the nexus of energy and water in a unique way that enables hydropower solutions to be force multipliers for positive change. However, the conventional historical approach to hydropower using large dams faces headwinds – projects often have negative environmental and social impacts and take a long time to build.

In contrast to large hydro with big dams, a distributed hydropower approach offers the attractive grid reliability aspects of hydropower, while also addressing critical issues around watershed restoration and climate resilience.

On the grid reliability side of things, distributed hydro is:

  • dispatchable
  • can be networked together into Virtual Power Plants to aggregate storage spread across the distributed plants — basically you have a distributed “reservoir” instead of one big one
  • can be hybridized with batteries and interestingly, distributed hydro enables a very efficient charge-discharge cycle in batteries in such applications

On the watershed restoration and climate resilience side of things, distributed hydro:

  • slows runoff of water down during extreme precipitation events, helping to mitigate flooding
  • increases groundwater recharge, which is our largest source of long duration water storage and helps mitigate drought
  • if designed with appropriate criteria for river connectivity, distributed hydro can help restore habitat by creating wetlands and side channels

Financially, the long-term profitability of every hydropower project hinges upon the maintenance of healthy watersheds. In turn, healthy, functioning watersheds are beneficial for the ecosystem services those watersheds provide, supporting environmental objectives, and improving watershed climate resilience.

Why should workers reskill for controversial renewable energy fields like hydropower?

Climate touches and transforms our lives most intimately through water. Too much or too little, at the wrong time or in the wrong place, and our lives are thrust into a state of uncertainty.

Never has humanity faced such a daunting challenge – to fundamentally alter how we interact with our Earth, our atmosphere, and each other in such a brief period of time. Yet, at the same time, never has any generation been as empowered – scientifically, technologically, and financially – with the tools and resources to proactively mitigate, adapt and address the myriad of climate challenges and opportunities we now face.

President Biden is wasting no time putting his climate action plan into practice and is calling for 100% renewable energy by 2035 and the retraining of oil and gas workers. Within the first few hours of his presidency, he called for a pause on new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which means that jobs are changing and will impact the current workforce

Hydropower is arguably one of the more powerful tools we have at our disposal to simultaneously support climate mitigation and adaptation at scale. It generates renewable, rapidly-dispatchable energy that complements intermittent renewables like solar and wind. Hydropower, and geothermal energy, when combined with wind, solar and batteries, create a faster, more diverse and robust path to a zero carbon grid, while maintaining the level of grid reliability that we generally enjoy today. In addition to reducing emissions by supporting the transition to a zero carbon grid, hydropower projects also can help us adapt to the changes in our water and weather patterns from climate change. Multi-purpose hydropower projects support adaptation through the provision of water for consumption and irrigation, while also protecting us from floods and droughts.

How stable are renewable energy jobs in hydropower?

Job growth in renewable energy has been steadily growing for a decade. Given the demand ahead of us as we transition to a zero carbon grid, this growth is expected to continue. Renewable energy jobs have a steadier growth trajectory, particularly when compared to the more volatile boom and bust cycles seen in oil and gas.

In contrast, jobs in the oil and gas sector are actually highly volatile. Every time the price of oil drops, jobs are at risk of being eliminated.

Are there incentives, tuition reimbursements, stipends, or other monetary incentives possible to assist persons who want to reskill?

There are a number of existing federally funded programs to support renewable energy and manufacturing training programs. These are funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy. You can see more at this link. The Biden Administration has an ambitious plan to expand these programs to add 10 million clean energy jobs.

What impact do you foresee those discussions having on the hydropower field?

The discussions kicked off in the Uncommon Dialogue, which led to the Joint Statement of Collaboration, are helping the hydropower industry work with the environmental community to reach agreement on key policy issues that will unlock investment in the existing hydropower fleet and in projects that restore watershed function while adding new reliable hydropower generation.

Indeed, there is growing realization on all fronts that, with the proper focus on watershed health and function, hydropower plants can be useful, multi-benefit infrastructure investments that will help us deal with and adapt to the already changing climate.

reskilling

Please discuss the “3 Rs” of the Joint Statement and how those steps might increase hydropower jobs.

The Joint Statement called out three primary pathways:

  • rehabilitate powered and non-powered dams that need repairs
  • retrofit (e.g., upgrade) powered dams with modern turbines and controls, add generation at non-powered dams, develop pumped storage projects, and enhance hydro operations for water supply, fish passage, flood mitigation, and grid integration of wind and solar
  • remove dams that no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that cannot be cost-effectively mitigated or have adverse environmental impacts that cannot be effectively addressed

Applying the first two “Rs” is relatively intuitive — upgrade existing plants with modern technologies that enable better environmental and power performance and selectively add power to existing non-power water infrastructure using modern technologies that are environmentally sound. The third “R” is somewhat more complicated. There are more than 90,000 existing dams in the US, of which less than 2,500 produce hydropower. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimated in 2019 that $70 billion is required to rehabilitate federal and non-federal US dams.

By focusing on the rehabilitation, retrofit, and removal of existing powered and non-powered US dams (the “3 Rs”), the parties to the Joint Statement aim to improve dam safety, flood protection, water security, and recreation, while also increasing reliable renewable energy generation and electricity storage capacity, better integrating variable solar and wind power, reducing environmental impacts, restoring and protecting rivers, and advancing US economic development and job creation.

In each of the activities – Rehabilitation, Retrofits and Removal – there are major opportunities for job creation in construction, project management, manufacturing of the equipment installed in the projects, operations and maintenance, and environmental planning and monitoring.

Images provided by Natel Energy

 

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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