Nov. 30, 2017

Remote northern Alberta community has UCalgary grad to thank for its solar energy project

Sustainable energy master's student Juan Pfeiffer worked closely with his mentor to create a winning bid for provincial grant
Juan Pfeiffer is a recent graduate of the Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development program at the University of Calgary. To help get a solar energy project started for Peavine Settlement, he created detailed models, conducted environmental and economic benefit analyses, and gathered construction quotes.

Juan Pfeiffer is a graduate of the Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development program.

Juan Pfeiffer

How many solar panels does it take to cover the arena roof in Peavine Métis Settlement?

It’s not exactly the kind of question Juan Pfeiffer was accustomed to answering over the course of earning two engineering degrees in his native Colombia, but it is precisely the question at the core of his capstone project for the Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) program at the University of Calgary from which he has just graduated.

“We need to do some energy transition,” Pfeiffer says. “My background is in oil and gas engineering, but I was always interested in renewables and we didn’t have as much opportunity to explore that in Colombia.”

Project put theory into practice

Pfeiffer’s interests and expertise led him to the unique 16-month sustainable energy program which draws about 30 students each year. But it was getting paired with mentor Sue Kuethe that proved to be the key to connecting a passion for renewables with a practical application in Peavine Settlement, about 60 kilometres north of High Prairie in Peace Country. It was her guidance, contacts, and expertise that mobilized Pfeiffer’s passion and skills to make his capstone project truly impactful.

“I learned from talking with Juan that he had a goal to one day return to help out in the remote areas of Colombia where there is no power, no electricity,” says Kuethe, who retired recently from a successful career in aboriginal affairs and land management in the oil and gas industry. “We put our heads together to try to find a project that fit, and realized there is a provincial program offering grants for solar installations for Indigenous communities.”

While Pfeiffer researched the particulars of the Alberta Indigenous Solar Program, Kuethe reached out to her contacts in First Nations and Métis communities across the province. When they called Peavine with their plan to apply for the solar grant, the folks in the small community were enthusiastic and they began working together right away.

Progress was initially slow, with Pfeiffer gathering old electricity bills and other documents from afar. He did an electricity needs assessment, homing in on the energy-intensive rink, with its ice plants.

Pfeiffer created detailed models and conducted environmental and economic benefit analyses. He contacted solar energy companies for quotes. Finally, after three months of waiting and wondering, they learned the grant was approved. The plan is for the system to be up and running by March 2018.

“Without Juan’s help, we just didn’t have the manpower or the time to make this happen,” says Greg Gauchier, who led the project on behalf of Peavine Métis Settlement. “He eventually became the project manager. He was so helpful, and so passionate; I tell the guys now he’s practically an honorary member of our community.”

“With 264 PV modules, it’s going to produce the energy equivalent of running 14 homes, but because it’s an arena it will only provide around 40 per cent of the annual energy consumption,” Pfeiffer says. “The installation will reduce 61 tonnes CO2 emissions, save $10,000 in energy bills a year, and take just six years to pay back with the provincial grant.”

Sustainable Energy Development program promotes multidisciplinary approach

Incorporating energy, the environment, economics and Indigenous communities, Pfeiffer’s project is a model for much of what the SEDV program espouses. “We ask students to take a broad and multidisciplinary approach,” says Irene Herremans, professor in the SEDV program and with the Haskayne School of Business.

“You can have strong technical skills and ideas, but if you can’t do the economic analysis or look at the project from a social and environmental perspective, it’s simply not going to be implemented in the current climate.”

The project not only required a multidisciplinary approach, it took a team of people: Pfeiffer credits the mentoring he received for a lot of the project’s success.

“The relationship with Sue was very good from the beginning,” Pfeiffer says. “She helped me to understand Canadian business culture, she taught me a lot about Indigenous history, and gave me some very helpful advice as far as working with Peavine Métis Settlement.”

A perfect mentoring match 

“I felt very fortunate to be paired up with Juan, he’s a really special person,” Kuethe says. “And mentorship is definitely a two-way street, because I learned a lot from him, including about the economics of solar which I simply never would have known otherwise.”

Frances Donohue is a program adviser at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business in the Haskayne School of Business, and she runs the Haskayne Mentorship Program, including the cohort enrolled in the sustainable energy master’s degree program. Formal mentorship, one of many ways students can increase leadership skills and effectiveness, connected Pfeiffer with Kuethe. In fact, Donohue hand-matches all 113 mentees she manages.

“What’s unique about our program is our matching process. We use interviews, personality and other assessments,” Donohue says. “Mentors are looking to share their expertise and knowledge, and mentees look to expand their network, build their skills, and learn.”

Donohue is clear mentorship is not about getting an “in” for a job, but through increased exposure to a new industry and opportunity to work on a community-based project initiated by his mentor relationship, Pfeiffer’s project did lead to full-time employment. He is working for the Government of Alberta as a green energy adviser within the Indigenous Relations ministry.

“I got the job in large part thanks to this project,” Pfeiffer says. “It gave me the opportunity to showcase the skills in renewable energy they were looking for, and the experience working with Indigenous communities I needed.”

And it’s the connections that have outlasted the project, and may even outlive the 20-year solar installation. Pfeiffer is still in regular touch with Kuethe, and he’s kept in contact with Peavine Métis Settlement too.

Gauchier says he’s hoping the arena solar installation is just the first of many renewable energy projects for Peavine. To show his appreciation, shortly after Pfeiffer convocated in November Gauchier invited him to be his guest at a performance of a play in Edmonton. Pfeiffer says: “I have learned so much through this process. The play was about Louis Riel and I felt really honoured to go with him.”