Kelly Walker, Women's Engineering Society (WES) Prize winner 2011

Introducing Kelly Walker Women's Engineering Society (WES) Prize winner 2011

Kelly found a way to ‘save the world’ – she became an engineer! She now travels across Europe working as a combustion engineer, promoting sustainability and working on new technologies that are lowering power station carbon emissions.

When at the age of 14 Kelly learnt about rainforest deforestation and the finite energy resources we have, she decided she wanted to play her part to ‘save the world’. Over the years she became focused on a passionate belief for green energy and a desire to raise the profile of sustainability.

As a student she undertook work placements at both the Conservation Trust and Environment Agency but felt that she could - and wanted to – have a bigger impact. Then there was one conversation that changed her life forever and set her out on the path to becoming a combustion engineer.

“I was talking about my career with one of the engineers at the Environment Agency and he said ‘well if you want to do environmental science you’ll talk about and analyse the problem, but you’ll always pass it over to an engineer to solve the problem’. That was it. I think it’s true when people say that it only takes one spark – his mention of engineering set me on this path.”

She undertook a fuels and combustion engineering (now called energy engineering) degree at Leeds University, which at the time was a small course: her year only had three students. A unique type of engineering, the course focused on fossil fuel combustion as well as renewables such as biomass, wind, solar and a small section on nuclear.

During her time at university Kelly undertook placements at Alstom, which focused on power station retrofits; installing technology that would reduce emissions and improve the efficiency of the plants. The company sponsored her to do an MEng and then she spent three years working as a graduate for them before moving on to her current company E.ON.

E.ON’s New Build and Technology department

Now working for E.ON’s New Build and Technology department, Kelly’s enthusiasm for cleaner and efficient energy combined with her proactive attitude allows her to make a difference every day through engineering.

She is part of a pan-European team of engineers that work alongside academia, and is responsible for the provision of both specialist and general technical consultancy to E.ON’s coal and oil power stations throughout Europe. She’s also become a specialist on Low NOx systems and biomass co-firing.

One of the areas she is focusing on currently is looking at coal and oil power stations that are coming to the end of their useful life or are being shut down due to emissions, and converting them to biomass. During her later years at university Kelly began to focus on the area of biomass and feels that thanks to this, she can have a strong influence on such projects.

“E.ON’s strategy is focused on sustainability and there’s a lot of funding into biomass, which is my speciality,” she explains. “Because I specialised on this at university, even though I’m quite young I can have quite a lot of influence on the projects; shape them, design them and push for more funding.

“Basically any station that uses biomass offsets carbon emissions that would previously have been generated from using fossil fuel as biomass can be classed as near carbon zero,” she says. “Because of this I honestly do feel I’m making a difference. Every time you solve a problem the station emits less emissions, so anything I can do that aids that makes things a little bit better,” she enthuses.

Joining the STEM Ambassador programme

Kelly’s passion to promote sustainability isn’t confined to the workplace however. She recently joined the STEM Ambassador programme and in 2012 will begin going into schools to talk to pupils.

“If the next generation become more energy conscious, even if they don’t all become engineers or scientists, I hope I can get them to think a little bit more about how they live and become more sustainable,” she explains. “I’d like the opportunity to open peoples’ eyes a little bit. It would be great to contribute to changing future generations’ perceptions!”

Kelly is hugely grateful for the opportunities she has had so far, and looking towards the future she is aiming to become a master in her field.

“Because what I do is really specialised, I’ve been really lucky to work with some of the most highly experienced combustion engineers in the UK and beyond. They have 20 to 30 years plus experience on mine, so obviously that is a knowledge gap that's going to take a long time to build up, but I’m aiming to become a master in my field, become well respected, be able to solve more problems and well, just be a good engineer,” she enthuses.

Staying "hands on"

However it is hugely important to Kelly to continue making a difference and so we’re not likely to see her move into management soon – she wants to keep as "hands on" as possible.

“I don’t want to go into management, I want to stay ‘geek’ and keep making a difference,” she explains. “(My fear is that the point) gets lost, it just becomes too far removed. I like that with engineering you can be working on your laptop one day, doing some little calculations or looking at fuels that have been analysed and the next day you’re out at the power station. You’re relating the two almost immediately: you do something at the power station and see an immediate change in emissions and combustion performance. I like that it’s ‘real’,” she concludes.

Watch Kelly’s YWE finalist video.

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