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Q&A with Jim Sandercock, chair of NAIT's Alternative Energy Technology Program

Q&A with Jim Sandercock, chair of NAIT's Alternative Energy Technology Program

While immature technology and high costs are obvious obstacles to the energy transition, another major challenge is ensuring there are qualified, competent people to work in Alberta’s emerging renewable energy industry. Thankfully, NAIT’s Alternative Energy Technology Program is there to take on this challenge and build up Alberta’s renewable energy workforce. We spoke to the chair of this Emerald Award-winning program, Jim Sandercock, to learn more about this exciting program and about renewable energy in Alberta more generally.

A NAIT student installing a solar array

A NAIT student installing a solar array

What is the NAIT Alternative Energy Technology Program?

“The Alternative Energy Technology Program is a two-year diploma and we focus on a number of different technologies that have to do with renewable energy, energy efficiency, etc. We had our very first group of students back in 2011 and we now bring in forty-eight students per year. The program has four major learning objectives:

  1. Renewable Electricity

  2. Alternative options for Heating and Cooling and Energy Efficiency for Buildings

  3. Bio-energy and Bio-refining

  4. Sustainable Business Practices

What does this program look at specifically?

“A number of things! With alternative energy, the least expensive and most impactful thing you can do is to not use energy. Energy efficiency is both the cheapest and most impactful greenhouse gas (GHG) reducing activity per dollar. So we teach a lot about energy efficiency but we also teach about electricity generation. In regards to generation, we teach about solar and wind but also about biogas, ethanol and biodiesel. Finally, we teach about geothermal, which is actually just moving heat around so it’s technically not renewable energy.”

Who’s the right student for this program?

“The students we’ve had so far have been so interdisciplinary it’s crazy! We’ve had people from the ages of 17 to 54. We have lots of people coming from oil and gas, wanting to retool their careers. We have others retiring from other lines of work, wanting to retool their careers. We have people who have gone off and started their own businesses in solar installation or energy efficiency after finishing the program. There’s a huge variety of people coming to the program and a huge variety of directions they go after, as they look for solutions to Alberta’s GHG problem.”

How is this program helping Alberta’s energy transition? Did this program fill any specific needs that weren’t being met before?

“Absolutely! In our earliest days, it was really a matter of sitting down with the industry and asking: ‘What are your gaps and needs?’ So we identified all those gaps and needs and now we’re putting out alumni with the skill set the industry needs. We’re pushing highly qualified personnel into an industry that just didn’t have the staff. That’s what we’re really offering. We’re offering staff who are technologists, people who are somewhat in between trades people and engineers and whose skill set crosses over with that of other professions.”

From your perspective, what are some obstacles to Alberta’s transition to Renewable Energy?

“I think one of the biggest things is that companies really dislike uncertainty and risk. We need to set up as much certainty in the market as possible for what’s still perceived as a pretty big risk to a lot of bankers and financiers. The current government did a good job of trying to create certainty and we need to continue down that vein.

The other thing we need to do is to win the hearts and minds of Albertans. So things like Energy Efficiency Alberta, where they come into peoples’ homes and do simple, inexpensive things like replacing people’s light bulbs. That’s brilliant! Things like that will help people to understand the new realities of Alberta’s energy transition.”

What are you most proud of with this program?

“I’m really impressed with how much effort the instructional staff have been putting into keeping the curriculum right up to the cutting edge of the technology. And I’ve also been really thrilled with how much our students have stepped up and impacted the industry. The level that our alumni have achieved is incredible, the ambition they have is remarkable. In fact, around 13% of our alumni have started their own companies.”

What’s the future of this program?

“We are actually right now in the process of expanding the program. This January was the very first time we had an intake of students in January, so we are actually right in the middle of doubling the amount of students in the program. We also definitely need to keep up with the technology. In the next year or two, we’ll be retooling the program to reflect some of the big changes in the industry. In that way, it’s a very exciting time! If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live during the industrial revolution, well we’re in one! It’s remarkable!”

That is very exciting, especially for you and your program! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and we wish you the very best as you and the NAIT Alternative Energy Technology Program move forward!

(Cover image provided by NAIT. Video provided by the Alberta Emerald Foundation)

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