Oyster 1 wave energy converter in operation credit Aquamarine Power

On the crest of a wave

Want to get involved in the early growth of an industry? Well great career paths are appearing in the UK’s wave and tidal sector.

We may be at the early dawn of the wave and tidal industry but Martin McAdam, ceo of wave power company Aquamarine Power has no doubt about its potential. “We’re at the very start but the UK has a great opportunity to become a global player and take our technical expertise and know-how and export it all over the world like we have with oil and gas,” he says.

According to the Carbon Trust, the not-for-profit charged with accelerating the move to a low carbon economy in the UK, marine sites could generate electricity at costs comparable with nuclear and onshore wind as early as 2025 and in the future marine energy could provide a fifth of the UK’s electricity needs. The trust also believes that the UK could capture just under a quarter of the global marine energy market and, by 2050, contribute £76 billion to the UK economy and generate nearly 70,000 jobs.

A raft of technical and financial challenges

If it is to achieve this, the sector must conquer a raft of technical and financial challenges though and at the moment innovation is needed to drive cost reduction and also “de-risk” the industry, says the Trust. It is calling on project developers to engage in non-competitive research and development efforts to tackle challenges and costs associated with array deployment, foundations and electrical connections.

Good news for young engineers

All of this is good news in the long-term for graduate and young engineers. As with any emerging industry, there are fewer entry-level routes but internships and graduate programmes certainly do exist and there is no doubt that those in the sector believe it needs the fresh thinking that young engineers can bring.

“We need to bring people in with experience but being at the cutting edge, we also need people who don’t know what can’t be done so they will do it anyway,” says McAdam.

Aquamarine Power runs both an internship and graduate recruitment programme, the latter attracting 300 applications for five places this year. “Out of the five, two had gone through the student placement programme we ran,” he says, going on to explain that more than half the workforce has Masters or PhDs and as well as engineering disciplines comes from physics, astrophysics and biology backgrounds.

Tim Stiven is director, business development, UK and Europe of Ocean Power Technologies (OPT), whose PowerBuoy technology uses large floating buoys anchored to the sea bed to capture energy and convert it into electricity using innovative power take-off systems. He says while hires are generally more experienced at the moment, this will change quickly as the industry scales up in the next few years.

“There are great career paths for young engineers in the wave and tidal energy sector in the UK,” he says. “Being involved in the early growth of an industry gives graduate engineers the chance, not only to hone their technical skills, but to roll their sleeves up on all sorts of commercial issues as well.”

Unique opportunities

Without doubt, being in at the start provides some unique opportunities for young engineers and David Krohn, wave and tidal development manager at RenewableUK - the trade and professional body for the UK wind and marine renewable industries - says if you are talented enough, there is an opportunity to establish yourself at the forefront of an industry set to expand significantly.

“While the technical challenges require fresh thinking and innovative approaches, it is likely that advancements will have a real impact on the ease and rate of deployment,” he says. “The chance to grow the industry and eliminate barriers is especially keen in an undeveloped industry. Furthermore, working in the world of renewable energy offers real job satisfaction as you contribute towards the low carbon future.”

Interested in the wave and tidal sector?

Krohn advises that those interested in working in the sector become as knowledgeable as possible about it, seek work in complementary sectors as a possible route in, and set about building their profile by enrolling in networks and attending industry functions. “This will help them to gather knowledge about the industry and meet people already involved in the sector,” he says.

Going Global

Stiven describes the renewable power sector as extremely “international” and says young engineers should value the chance to learn how to do business in many countries across the world. “[This] would really enhance an engineer’s employability and it’s vital that we develop a generation of engineers who have business skills as strong as their technical skills,” he says.

He is right to emphasise the need for business as well as technical skills since the major overall challenge at the moment is reducing the cost of marine energy and Krohn says the sector needs innovation in this area.

“Efficiency and productivity are just two factors that impact on cost of energy and technological innovation is the key to unlocking the potential of the industry,” he says. “Fresh approaches and ideas are needed to overcome the hurdles to the development of the industry and build on the considerable innovation that has already occurred.”

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