Skills shortage threatens renewable energy industry

Engineering shortage could stunt renewable energy growth in the UK

A shortage of skilled engineers is a major obstacle to the UK meeting its renewable energy targets, industry leaders say.

Offshore wind will be the key driver for growth in renewable energy, but skills shortages and lack of investment threatened to stop the sector in its tracks, according to a panel of energy experts at a round table discussion on the subject.

Spencer Ogden managing director David Spencer-Percival said: “Anywhere between 80-100,000 jobs will be created by offshore wind alone; that’s before you even consider massive construction projects for nuclear energy.”

“There will be a lot of jobs generated in the near future – not just in construction but also in very skilled, specific things like grid connection. Many skills will be needed, but not all of them are in the UK, unfortunately,” Spencer-Percival said.

More industry involvement with school children at secondary level, promoting technology and science subjects, and the energy sector as a secure, long-term, well-paid career path, were suggestions from the panel on how the government could plan for future growth in the sector.

Panellist Shadow Energy Minister Huw Irranca-Davies said while the UK did not have an energy crisis at the moment, it must “plan very rapidly to avoid one...the energy gap is looming".

The credibility of renewable energy with major investors, the lack of a clear legislative framework and the fact that the UK is ‘lagging behind Europe in terms of incentives’ were also identified as issues of concern.

“A lot of this new energy capacity is going to come in the form of smaller projects – two to five megawatts.  The only way these will get built is if the asset class becomes institutionally credible, and at the moment it’s not.  It’ll only happen if pension funds and other investors start writing out cheques to invest in this stuff, and that’s the challenge – to deliver through results and deliver great returns,” said Ben Goldsmith, Founding Partner of WHEB Partners.

Nuclear, solar, onshore wind and shale gas were also considered.

“Burning (shale) gas to produce electricity has less impact than burning coal – however, there is still a considerable impact. There is also potentially an impact in getting to the shale gas in the first place...At the moment, there has not been enough scientific, peer-reviewed work done on this,” commented Lord Chris Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency.

He added: “There is a possibility that in some cases, substantial quantities of methane could be released if shale gas is extracted in the wrong way.  Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas imaginable; we need to make sure that we’ve got that properly controlled.”

“Renewables and nuclear do both need to be part of the picture – if you’d asked me 15 years ago I would have said no to nuclear power, largely because of all the waste issues. But climate change had made a realist of me,” Lord Smith said.

Further reading:

See E & T’s feature on Power skills in short supply.

See E & T’s news story on the industry’s response to the Renewable Energy Review.

A video of the panels’ discussion is available here.

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