As part of a series highlighting the work of young people in addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews Brandon Sandmaier, operator of a solar energy company in Edmonton.

Author's statement

With the realities of climate change, inequality and the pandemic, one could be forgiven for choosing despair. But the world is no better off for that, so I choose to study hope, a discipline that requires practice. Here, treat yourself to a few minutes of joy in the next instalment of my series profiling amazing — and yes, hopeful — young people contending successfully with the climate justice crisis in Canada.

Brandon Sandmaier and Generate Energy

In 2014, you might have thought Brandon Sandmaier was at the top of his game. At 31, he had his journeyman heavy equipment technician ticket and was following in his dad’s footsteps working in the mobile crane industry in Alberta’s oilsands. He had a high income, a supportive wife and two great kids.

Six short years later, he now runs a solar energy company and is so successful, his wife can be at home with their four children. I chatted with him in his hometown of St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton.

Brandon with his wife Jaclyn and four children in 2020. Photo submitted by Brandon Sandmaier

Tell us about your business.

Generate Energy is part of the Vital Group of Companies. Our niche is helping customers save, produce, and manage energy in their buildings. We begin by taking our clients on a treasure hunt, looking for ways to save them money and energy, improve the quality of indoor spaces, and often, by adding solar systems, decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.

A simple life will make you happy, says Albertan who left the oilpatch to open a solar installation business. #cleantech #cleanenergy #solar #Alberta

What are some examples of your projects?

The 100 solar modules we installed on the roof of the Laurier Heights Community League in Edmonton allows the facility to operate with net-zero emissions.

At the Bon Accord Arena in Edmonton we did an LED lighting retrofit, which improved lighting on the ice, reduced energy demand by 55 per cent, and saved more than $6,000 a year.

Tell us about your journey out of oil and gas to renewables.

Working in the oilsands, I was making a good living. But that wasn’t enough. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and wanted to have my own business. I was also tired of being away from my wife and kids for long stretches of time. There is an overabundance of businesses focused on heavy equipment repair in Alberta. But the renewable energy space was growing, and the technical aspects of that industry really intrigued me. So with the full support of my wife Jaclyn, knowing I would bring in no income for two years or more, I went back to school to learn about solar installations and project management.

You learned technical skills at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). Did it help in other ways?

NAIT was critical to my success. I was pretty passionate about the shift, but it was a blind leap of faith in many ways. In addition to first-class skills training, the faculty at NAIT showed me how large the industry was already and opened my eyes to its huge possibilities. NAIT also offered networks and relationships with industry. I left with a skill set and knowledge base, and the confidence that allowed me to rapidly make my own way.

How would you compare where you are now with your past career?

I go to work every day knowing that not only do I make a good living, but also that I am helping keep the planet habitable for my children. That is a seriously good feeling. It's true I don't make the same wage as I did as a tradesperson, but I am confident our future will be stable. I can be more a part of my kids' lives. Our quality of life has gone up, not down.

Brandon Sandmaier with a solar module for a project on an elementary school in Edmonton in 2015. Photo courtesy of NAIT

What gives you hope?

My kids understand things that I sure did not when I was that young. We don’t hide the reality that our planet is dying. But kids are pretty practical. They want to know what is being done about it. I am proud I can say I am helping.

What advice do you have for young people who might see themselves in your story?

Everyone is different, but I have learned that simpler living can make you happier. You don’t have to accept the social pressure that says it is enough to just bring home a good paycheque. You can bring home meaning, too. Not everyone has to go back to school like I did. The jobs to make our planet healthy already exist. We need everyone. We need you.

There are so many opportunities and organizations ready to help you make the shift. People are incredibly helpful in this industry. They will talk to you. Make connections with no aim in mind except the possibility that the relationship might teach you something or point you somewhere.

What does support look like from the older generation?

It is important to read and learn from diverse sources. Confirmation bias is such a problem because it reinforces things we already believe. So many people do not check the source when they use social media. Read content with which you disagree. And make it OK for us younger people to ask questions and share information that might not align with your worldview. Boomers have so much power and influence to make a difference. Find a way to be the change we need.

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Very inspiring!