The Next Generation

Building a renewable future on fossil fuel foundations

The next generations of manufacturers, builders, and makers aren’t the one-trick ponies of the distant past. They’re intelligent, informed, engaged, and looking to make a difference in their world, for their world. 

While the foundations of our society and industries aren’t necessarily going to change overnight, the changes are coming, and they are being felt. The critical piece is making sure that you, your organization, and your workforce are ready, willing, and able to embrace the adjustment and jump to the new demands.

Prairie Manufacturer’s editor, Jeff Baker, spoke with Lliam Hildebrand, Red Seal Steel Fabricator & Welder, and Founder and current Executive Director of Iron & Earth, a non-profit organization built by workers and supporters from and connected to Canada’s fossil fuel industries that is looking to use their skills and knowledge to transition Canada into a greener energy future.

Here’s their conversation.

Jeff Baker – Let’s start by telling me about yourself, how you got into your trade, and how you made your way to Alberta.

Lliam Hildebrand – I grew up on a 10-acre farm on the West Coast of British Columbia, where I learned how to work with my hands and developed a really deep appreciation for the environment. I was outdoors, playing in the woods, and just being on the farm every day.

Another sort of random bit of information, but important part of my story is that my family sold our farm when I was 13, and we moved to a small Pacific island nation called Vanuatu.

We lived on a totally self-sufficient island, and the people lived very traditionally. I was able to really immerse myself into that culture in that environment and made friends with kids my age and ran around in the woods with our machetes all day long. It was just absolutely an incredible experience.

In the evening time, I was able to spend time with elders around the fire, hearing these stories that are hundreds of years old. That’s where I really developed an appreciation for Indigenous ways of life.

Coming out of all of that, I didn’t really know what to do after high school, but the one thing that I really enjoyed was metal shop. So, I went straight into the trades and started as a welder. 

My first job was at a gravel truck repair shop. It was a little rough around the edges, for sure, but it was great pay and a great place to learn all sorts of skills. 

One day, I got a phone call from my old baseball coach, saying ‘Hey, why don’t you come work at my fabricating shop? We’re building some really exciting projects. I think you’d have a lot of fun here.’

I said, ‘Okay, that sounds good,’ and that was the beginning of my steel fabrication career. 

I totally loved my job. I thought it was just such an exciting thing to be able to go into work every day, open up the blueprint and figure out what you’re building, and try to come up with creative solutions to build these huge infrastructure projects that we were building. 

We built all sorts of things. We built flare stacks that we shipped off to China. We built industrial composters that we sent to Ireland and Mexico. We built a lot of drilling rig platforms for Alberta, a lot of pressure vessels for the oil and gas industry around the world, and we built some the real megastructures, including some coal ship loaders and other types of infrastructure. 

I really loved that job, like I said, but then one day I got put on a new project as a lead hand.

The first project I was the lead hand on was a wind farm weather station, and that was my first real exposure to that scale of renewable energy. 

Since it was my first lead hand project, I got into the research around what this technology was all about – what it was that we were building – and I came across all of this information about climate change.

That was the game changing moment for me when I realized that my skills could build all of these things. I could build all these structures that are creating climate change, and I could also build the structures that are going to be one of the key solutions to addressing the issue and reversing it. 

At that point, I actually went in and quit my job.

I ended up on this mission to figure out how to apply my trade skills to building the renewable energy future. 

JB: That sounds like a gutsy move on your part, that you said ‘Okay, I’m going to get out of this, and I’m going to try to build something new.’

LH: Absolutely. It was pretty terrifying in some ways. My parents thought I was crazy.

I was young, and I was taking a chance. And at first, the gamble didn’t pay off. I wasn’t able to find this sort of new career in renewables, and I ended up working in the oil sands on and off for the next six years.

It was really while working in the oil sands that my understanding of the complexities of the transition really started to emerge and where I was able to emerge as well.

JB: Tell me more about this emergence. You were sort of a lone figure standing on the horizon, saying ‘I see a better way.’ Were you actively looking for others like you, or did you just end up in conversations and found out you weren’t the only one?

LH: I really wear my heart on my sleeve, and I sort of put my ideas forward right off the bat. On day one, I was nicknamed Greenpeace by the other guys in the lunchroom.

Seriously though, it was inspiring, because what ended up happening was that I had more and more people coming up to me saying that what I was talking about actually resonated with them. Eventually, the conversations in the lunchroom started to change, and by the end of that job, we were candidly discussing all these exciting new opportunities. 

The sceptics were still around, and that was just all part of the conversation. Year after year, I kept on going up [to the oil sands] and the conversations were evolving along with the rapidly changing renewable energy space.

Then this bold dream became more and more a dire necessity that really came to a head in 2015 when the oil price crash was resulting in what ended up being 100,000 layoffs within a very short period of time. 

That’s when we said, ‘Okay, it’s time to really do something about all this talk.’ That’s when Iron & Earth came to be, and it’s been a pretty wild ride since then.

JB: What were the sceptics and detractors around you saying about the ideas you were sharing?

LH: There were so many different questions and doubts about this renewable energy future. One common theme was just that the technology just wasn’t there yet.

I rarely met anybody that just didn’t like renewable energies for their own sake. A lot of people just believed they weren’t cost effective, and it would be an unwise use of public dollars to incentivize that industry until it came along on its own legs.

That changed, though, when the price competitiveness of renewables during those years was changing faster than most people realized. I showed them the information and comparisons of the cost per kilowatt-hour against all of the different technologies, and you could see where the cost curve was going. While it wasn’t yet at price parity then, it is now, and solar is now the cheapest form of energy in history.

The conversations really changed, and people’s minds changed once they saw the up-to-date information. They might have been right just a few years earlier, but things changed, and they weren’t aware.

Another theme of the naysayers was that they just didn’t see themselves in that [renewable energy] future. They saw themselves as one thing and said ‘I’m an oil sands guy; I’m not going to install solar panels for the rest of my life. So why are you talking to me about this?’.

But I was able to just show them pictures of all of the different types of renewable energy technologies.

JB: So, you’re showing people the technologies of an industry in which they just couldn’t see themselves…

LH: Exactly.

You know… sometimes you find your spot on these jobs and you end up sitting with the same people for a couple of months during shutdown or maintenance turnaround. 

I remember this one guy who was sitting across from me in the lunchroom. He was the biggest sceptic on site – and that was perfect – because I got to engage in all sorts of different angles of this conversation. It was really when I showed him pictures of all the different types of renewable energy technologies, and he realized ‘That stuff looks like what we’re building outside, so my skills are going to be required to build those things, so maybe this is something I can get on board with.’

JB: Was there any time that you felt afraid bringing out into the open the renewable energy ideas – especially on an oil sands site?

LH: I wasn’t ever afraid, because I’m a member of the Boilermakers Union, and we have pretty strong protections to ensure our rights as workers are enforced. And I was confident that if I’m with this organization (Iron & Earth), with co-workers who also visibly support the initiative, that we would get the attention of our union leadership and they would ensure that our voice was at least considered at the table.

And that was the case. After we launched Iron & Earth, we were able to engage with leadership – union and company – pretty quickly. They’re a little bit slower to get on board with some of what we’re pushing for, but they too, see the need for climate action.

There’s never a job security issue for me, but I really wanted to make sure other workers felt safe signing on as members of the initiative. 

The goal has never been to antagonize the oil and gas industry or the coal industry. Rather, it’s always been first and foremost to say ‘Hey, we really appreciate everything the fossil fuel industry has provided to us and is continuing to provide to us, and we don’t want our jobs to go away just because we’re sort of signing the line and launching this initiative. We need these jobs to continue in the short and medium term, but we also believe in the transition and one that can bring everybody along. So, let’s do this in a way that respects everyone.’

We really need to bring this topic up in the national conversation – to really talk about it – in a way that isn’t so polarizing. It’s not an either-or question; it’s a yes-and sort of issue.

JB: How big is Iron & Earth now? 

LH: We have a total of over 7000 supporters that have signed one of our petitions, and more than 900 of those are workers in the fossil fuel industry.

We just launched a new campaign called the Prosperous Transition Campaign, and we hope to get thousands of workers to support our new call for investment in a green recovery, in our detailed four-point plan. We’re hoping to really build our membership even further over the next few months.

JB: I see that you’re looking to pass the Executive Director torch to someone else in the next while. What led you that decision? 

LH: Yeah, it’s a pretty exciting time right now for our organization and also for my own life.

I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been able to launch this thing and get it out of start-up mode. Just this year, we finally secured a bit more funding to ensure our foundation is a little more secure, so we can look forward for the next year or so. 

It’s a good time to find somebody who has a shared lived experience of what our organization stands for but also the experience scaling-up an organization to the next level.

We’re also hiring for a new CEO who is going to launch the social enterprise to take over the project and training programs side of the organization.

I’m absolutely confident we’ll find the right people. 

JB: From where you’ve been to where you’re at and where you’re going, can you offer any words of wisdom to others who might be looking to influence change in industry, especially with people who might not be particularly open to it?

LH: For me, where things really crystallized in my own journey was when I was having these hundreds and hundreds of conversations with my coworkers.

Start reaching out to others in your field and find allies. Have the difficult conversations to get closer to the problem and closer to the solution.

You don’t even necessarily need to know what the solutions are or even understand exactly what the shared problem is. I think that really emerges through conversations with people that have some sort of shared interests. From there, just follow the emergent process. 

When you come up with an idea that could potentially improve the world, try to do it in a in a bit of a group effort way. Don’t try to go it alone. Find your allies that are going to commit to taking action.

Just take the initiative.