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Power push creating new breed of engineer (02/04)

Wind power may be the future attraction for engineers relocating in the North. The Ontario Wind Power Task Force Industrial Report states there is a shortage of Canadians educated in the area of wind power.
Wind power may be the future attraction for engineers relocating in the North.
The Ontario Wind Power Task Force Industrial Report states there is a shortage of Canadians educated in the area of wind power. To achieve the goal of 10,000 megawatts by 2010, Canada will need to utilize the services of approximately 2,000 engineers, technicians and management staff, according to the report. As it is now, technical resources are coming from Alberta to fill work in Ontario, but Ontario's existing wind power installation amounts to seven or eight megawatts, a far cry from the 100 megawatts of installed capacity in Alberta, the report notes.

Samit Sharma, professional engineer with an MBA from Queens University and also director of projects for Gaia Power Inc., says Northern Ontario is full of possibilities for wind energy, however it will be linked to the policies brought forth by the government.

Northern Ontario holds approximately 80 per cent of Crown land. Recently the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources instituted a policy to open up government-owned land for wind-power development, Sharma says.

"People can make an application to scope out these lands for wind power development," Sharma explains.

"That is the one thing that has certainly increased the interest."

As a board director of Canadian Wind Energy Association (CANWEA), Sharma, along with experienced and educated professionals, set out with venture capitalists on a Lake Superior Wind Tour last summer, and the response from some of the communities was outstanding, he says.

"They were enthusiastic, curious and wanted to know more about it and more importantly they wanted something to be done about it," Sharma recalls.

The economy in some of the communities is hurting, he says. Sawmills and pulp and paper mills have scaled back their workforce, and the towns are looking for ways to diversify their economy and maybe increase tourism potential.

In some areas, wind power could be used as an industry, but the problem lies with the policies of the government, Sharma adds. The former government had legislation in place to deal with renewable energies. Now there is a new government and policies are continually changing.

"When you do not have a long-term outlook on policies, people are always shy to make investments on a large scale. This is one of the larger issues we are facing in the electricity market. No one is making any investment because there is no long-term policy outlook."

Already there are students asking about wind programs at Ontario colleges and universities. Alberta and Quebec's post-secondary institutions are turning out graduates in the field simply because both provinces have long-term policies, Sharma says.

Recent announcements from the provincial government indicate they are seeking experts in the field of energy and renewable resources to enhance Ontario's supply of electricity. This has some investors setting up meetings with a few northern communities, says Bob Hancherow, community development manager for Superior North. Although he is reluctant to disclose the potential locations, which have sparked interest, he says the investors will be touring parts of the northwest.

"There is high potential for wind energy locations here," Hancherow explains.

In fact, the North could harness not only the wind energy, but also the education that stems from the expertise of building and installing renewable energy forms. Post-secondary institutions would do well to prepare for the industry since wind-power engineers and technicians will be needed to see these projects to fruition, he adds.

"We should not be looking at just putting up some wind turbines," Hancherow urges, "We have to look at the whole industry. We need to pull our northern resources together to make this happen, be leaders in our own right. It must come from within."

Sharma supports this ideology by saying that any post-secondary institutions that offer those courses will be able to attract young people to the Northern community, which inevitably will lead to population retention.

Traditionally, it has been a struggle to lure professionals to the region, says David Shelsted, civil engineer for J.L. Richards and Associates Ltd. This may be partially due to a lack of diversified disciplines at Laurentian University, since students have to leave the northeast to obtain a majority of the engineering education in the south. After graduating it is easy to land a job in southern Ontario that may have a higher starting salary than what northern companies offer, he says.

However, Laurentian is looking to expand its engineering program to include a PhD discipline, Shelsted says, "which is a good sign for us."

Another factor contributing to the lack of engineers could be the "brain drain" philosophy. An individual accepting a job in the North will bring his/her partner from southern Ontario only to find there is no position for their significant other, at which point they both relocate back to southern

"We have seen that happen in a few instances, and we have seen that in our clients as well."

Shelsted is combating the out-migration by hiring student engineers during the summer. They started this practice approximately five years ago with great success. He adds the firm provides a multitude of services to northeastern United States, British Columbia, Cuba, Mexico and Quebec clients and although he currently has a diversified staff, he concedes the firm could use more engineers in specialized areas.

"Right now we are using mechanical engineers from our offices in Kingston, Ottawa and Timmins," Shelsted says. He says the company is currently looking for civil, electrical and mechanical engineers for the Sudbury and Timmins office.

The evolution of wind energy and engineers in wind energy could act as a drawing card for the North, he says.