CARLETON SUR MER, QUEBEC — Asked what he would be doing this day, if he wasn’t supervising the operations of a wind energy park situated on the highlands of this seaside village, Steve Labrie pauses and shrugs.

“That’s a good question,” says Labrie, 42.

One of more than 730 paper mill workers who lost their jobs when two mills shut down in a single day, Labrie landed on his feet in Quebec’s rapidly expanding wind-energy industry.

He is now the site operations manager for the Carleton Wind Farm, operated by Cartier Energie Eolienne on the Gaspé Peninsula. Cartier also operates wind farms — or energy parks, as they are called locally — at two other locations on the peninsula and will operate six in all, once they are built.

The company, a partner with TransCanada, is poised to be the largest single operator of wind farms in Quebec, responsible for 739 megwatts of generating capacity.

Adept at electronics and mechanics, Labrie was able to re-train, via General Electric, and gain the skills to work in the wind power industry, which was just taking off on the Gaspé.

He says his salary is comparable to what he was making in the paper industry and the work allows him to stay where he grew up and where his girlfriend and daughter are.

Stories similar to Labrie’s can be heard over and over again in this region of northern Quebec, the peninsula on the province’s northeast coast at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Over the past decade, the region has evolved into a cluster for wind-energy development and technology. Since 1998, more than 830 megawatts of wind-powered generation have been installed. In comparison, Maine has 199 megawatts of wind power on line.

Additional wind energy farms expected to be commissioned in the next three years will bring that total for the Gaspé region to more than 1,000 megawatts at 16 locations.

The focus on harnessing and exporting energy from the region came as the other natural-resource-based industries including fishing, forest products and copper mining, began to collapse, according to Frederic Cote, general manager of the Wind Energy TechnoCentre in the city of Gaspé.

“During the 1990s all those drivers kind of shut down,” Cote said. “So people in the area started to think, ‘What can we do next and what would be a good way to turn the economy around and get back to something positive?’ Wind energy was identified by people in the area as one way to diversify the economy of the region.”

The TechnoCentre, a not-for-profit organization, focuses on research and development and raising government and public awareness of the emerging contributions of the wind-energy sector. It has also become an important coordinating agency for those seeking information on bringing renewable energy technology to the region.

Gaspé was always known for its wind potential, Cote said. The wind blows a lot here and on most days of the year, so as early as the 1970s Hydro Quebec was exploring the possibility of building wind-power facilities in the region. Most notably, the power company installed the largest vertical-axis wind turbine in the world and tested wind in the Madeleine Islands.

“They learned a lot during these times, but still that did not lead to any big projects,” Cote said. “Then in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the wind was still there and the people said, ‘OK, maybe it is a good time to try again.'”

With a long-range plan in hand, policies that promoted wind energy and related support industries, including some wind turbine component manufacturing and a partnership with Hydro-Quebec, the region has created 950 full-time year-round jobs in the sector.

These are not the boom-time construction-related jobs that come with each farm built, between 200 and 300 short-term construction jobs at each site.

Wind-energy  jobs  include mechanical and electrical engineers, park managers and maintenance workers, turbine blade, nacelle and tower assembly-line work, trucking and shipping and a growing white-collar sector that includes environmental and energy consultants and bankers specializing in financing wind-energy projects.

Making something

A state-of-the-art turbine blade manufacturing facility built by the Danish company LM Wind Power employs 200 workers in Gaspé. The company declined a request for a tour of their facility. Marc Frenette, the company’s human resources manager in Gaspé, said turbine blades are shipped to projects on the peninsula and to many places around the globe.

A tight capital market, due to the global recession, put the company on a slowed-down production schedule of three days a week, but the demand for turbine components and its relative proximity to a slew of ongoing projects in Canada and the U.S. makes for a sunny future for the plant.

Frenette said the key to ensuring local manufacturing jobs were created were government policies that were passed onto Quebec-Hydro, requiring all wind-energy developers in the region to source locally up to 60 percent of their materials from local sources. That percentage of “local content” was ratcheted up from 40 percent, once production capacity was built up.

“I think that was a key factor and a good policy,” says Frenette standing in a yard full of the company’s 122-foot-long fiberglass composite blades. Frenette said that the demand for people with a high degree of technical skills exists, but there is also a large demand for a workforce that is “hands on.”

Like other young people who grew up in the region, the wind energy sector has allowed many young people like Frenette to come home. Frenette says he would likely work in the region regardless, but LM Wind Power was a great fit for him and others in the company, many of whom are under 30.

Back at the TechnoCentre’s offices Cote says, the total jobs number doesn’t include any tourist-sector jobs that may have grown from the abundance of wind energy on the peninsula, or jobs related to boom-time construction support for hotels and restaurants.

But Cote notes for the first time, the region’s tourism bureau has included photos of wind energy parks in its brochures touting the region.

He also notes that the next round of generation contracts, another 1,000 megawatts of wind power, which can be developed across the province are in the works.

Meanwhile, the region has gained experience, technical know-how and also developed technology unique for land-based wind-energy production in cold and alpine environments.

Murdochville, from mining to wind energy

Gaspe’ decade-long wind energy boom largely started with a single wind farm project on the mountains above Murdochville, a copper mining town, established in 1958.

The mine was closing and the town was faced with disbanding when the provincial government stepped up to the plate in the eleventh hour, just after a vote by townspeople to disband.

The province would provide the town with $1 million a year for nine years, to make up for the tax revenue no longer being paid by the mining company, Noranda.

Part of that funding would go toward funding redevelopment efforts aimed at rebuilding the 1,800 jobs lost at the mine and the associated smelting operation.

Still, the town constricted from more than 4,500 inhabitants during its boom years in the 1970s and 1980s to 743 in 2003, one year after all operations at the mine had ceased.

But Murdochville is again showing signs of growth, nearing 850 people in 2010, including one new family this year, interim town manager Ernest Gallen said.

“So growth, it is there,” says Gallen. “It might be hard to see sometimes, but it is there.”

Gallen, who was also once a manager of the mine and worked there for 32 years, has watched the wax and wane of Murdochville’s population.

“The days of Noranda are long gone,” Gallen says. “We have to change our method of thinking and our way of doing things. We can’t depend on Noranda any more. We have to depend on ourselves and it is not always easy, but it is coming.”

The town’s salvation can be pegged to the addition of the first wind farm in 2002, Gallen said, but the sustained effort to bring jobs back to Murdochville has included a call-center and new tourism attractions, including a golf course, alpine and back-country skiing expansions, a snowmobile museum with 175 antique machines, and an interpretative center on copper mining in the region.

In 2009, town officials estimate as many as 6,000 people visited the mining interpretative center while about 3,000 visitors participated in official tours of the wind parks encircling the town.

The town’s economic development director, Andre’ Lemieux, also a former general manager of the TechnoCentre,  is also quick to point out the town still has 14 industrial-type buildings, all with more than 100,000 square feet available for entrepreneurial development.

“This is my personal challenge,” says Lemieux, a native of the region. “To bring jobs and development to the town.”

Lemieux, who holds a Ph.D. in regional development from the University of Quebec at Montreal, has a detailed count of jobs in each sector, including direct wind-energy jobs and those related to wind energy.

Among them is a trucking company that moves turbine parts around the peninsula, employing about 50 people, another 20 work at a former mine facility crafting the steel substructures  needed to form a turbine’s concrete foundation.

Lemieux is also hopeful they will attract a company that will develop a geothermal industry utilizing the underground water now filling some 170 kilometers of  mine tunnels.

The town remains a one-horse kind of place, especially in mid-May, between the town’s winter and summer seasons. Only one of two restaurants are open mid-week, the hotel appears closed and the nearest open gas station is 80 kilometers away. Cell phone coverage doesn’t exist.

The first project at Murdochville, built by Montreal-based developer 3Ci, became a pilot for wind energy development in the region. For the opportunity to host those first projects Murcdochville did not receive any lease payments from the energy companies but, on three additional wind farms that are being developed on town lands, companies will pay a per turbine lease fee to the town.

“So this will be of an immense help, immense may be too big of word,” Gallen says. “But it will do a lot of good for the town.”

On the slopes of Mont Miller, far above the town offices, William Hogan and Bobby Dufour, both operations managers for Northland Power, show off the 30 turbines run by their company.

In all, 17 people work on the Northland farms, three for the company, including Hogan and Dufour and a front-office manager, the rest are full-time maintenance contractors for the turbine companies.

Dufour  formerly worked in the iron-mining industry and Hogan is a former Noranda employee. Below the rhythmic, whosh-whosh-whosh, of a spinning turbine, the two speak candidly about how wind energy was received by the townspeople.

They say piloting the project in a former industrial town made a lot of sense. Avoided were some of the typical concerns raised in Maine over the view and the visual or audio impacts of a large-scale industrial wind development.

“The people in Murdochville were glad it happened, it gave an opportunity to bring some jobs to Murdochville, especially when Noranda had just closed their installations,” says Hogan.

Dufour says the impact of wind turbines on the landscape was minimal compared to mining.

“Here it is an industrial town, so the people, they are used to hearing some noise and stuff like that in the background,” Dufour says. “But if you put some turbines in a rural town where only former they are used to hear maybe only birds and stuff like that … you bring some towers and big stuff like that, they have some fear, they are not used to that. But in an industrial town, it is not so bad, because people are already used to seeing some machines and stuff like that. It is not the same perception.”

Both men are proud of a special project they did which illuminated one turbine with flood lights, so it could be seen from the town at night. People in town wanted to be able to see the town’s new future even at night. “So it is a project that Bob and I had is probably the first in Canada,” Hogan says. “The first in North America,” Dufour adds with a smile.

“The people in the town they wanted it and they asked the town and we do the project,” Dufour said. “That gives you an idea of the acceptance, if they want to see it, we can conclude the acceptance is good.”

Canadian newspapers heralded the development of the first wind farm at the town — there are now two with three more in development —  as its saving grace, but Hogan and Dufour give a more practical, working-man’s assessment of the situation.

“Everybody wants work,” says Dufour. “But they don’t want to cut the trees, they don’t want the lumber mills but sometimes a choice has to be made.”

“You would not believe the amount of people (who come to see the wind parks),” says Dufour, and most go away with a new understanding. “That is the major impression, I think they see and they hear and think it is not so bad.”

At another 67-turbine wind park, operated by Cartier, on the peninsula’s northern shore in the village of Anse-A’-Valleau, Marc Chretien the site operations supervisor looks up at the spinning blades of a turbine.

All but one turbine — shut down for maintenance —  are pumping out electricity. Chretien smiles and says, “This is good, we are making money today.”

Over time, Gaspesians and other Canadians, including city-dwellers in Montreal and Quebec, have come to gain a better understanding of the green-energy economy, said Cote’ and others in the region.

Going forward

Some not working in the industry in the region have questions, including what happens after the typical 20-year contract the wind parks operate under, expire.

Some of that concern comes from experience with other natural resource-based industries that have come and gone, leaving hulking and abandoned eyesores — like the closed paper mill in New Richmond — on the landscape.

The contracts with the power producers require they establish a fund for the dismantling of turbines once their life expectancy has expired.

Sipping a beer and cheering on the Montreal Canadiens while watching a Stanley Cup play-off game at Micro-brasserie Le Naufrageur, a microbrewery in Carleton, 23-year-old Sonia Landry says some of the initial fears over what wind energy would mean to the region have subsided, but concern over what will be left lingers for her and others.

The promise the towers will be removed or dismantled exists, Landry agrees, but she questions the resolve of the government to ensure that. “They say they will replace things as they were before, but are they really obligated by the government to do this?” Landry asked in a recent e-mail.

A recent college graduate and local radio news reporter, Landry says the fear of how land will be treated by developers has prompted many private landowners to decline contracts but, by and large, the industry is making it possible, or at least providing opportunities that didn’t exist before, she wrote.

“It’s a real problem here that young people leave the Gaspe’ to study and don’t come back,” Landry says. “But many things in the last years now invite people to come back — or just come — to live here. Surely, wind energy will help.”

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