Engineers in the field [credit UK Power Networks].

Industry focus - Energy networks

We take a look at the energy networks sector: what are the best routes into this industry, the most sought-after skills and the biggest employers.

Industry snapshot

Energy networks are the wires and pipes that deliver electricity and gas to homes and businesses around the country and are the unsung heroes of the energy industry. A recent publication by the Energy Networks Association (ENA), which represents the gas and electricity transmission and distribution companies, points out that GB’s electricity network is more than one million kilometres long and could circle the equator 25 times. Meanwhile, gas is carried along 272,000km of pipes, which could go around the world six times.

The sector is divided into four categories: electricity transmission, electricity distribution, gas transmission, and gas distribution. ENA members employ over 28,000 people and, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the development of smart grids will employ 9,000 people in highly skilled roles over the next decades. As the UK takes a leading role in the smart grid field, DECC claims this will contribute £5bn to the economy in exports.

What’s happening in energy networks?

The UK’s energy networks require “an unprecedented” level of investment over the coming years says the ENA. This is to replace the ageing infrastructure but also to cope with a growing population as well as equip the UK to connect the new sources of low carbon energy to the grid. According to the DECC this investment could amount to £34bn in electricity networks and £7bn in gas between now and 2020.

ENA says smarter networks are required to meet the challenge of balancing low carbon energy with “security of supply”. It adds that not only will the networks have to connect to new sources of renewable and low carbon generation, but they have to meet the challenges of decarbonisation. When ENA talks about a smart grid, it is generally meant as a network that uses “advances in communications technology, automation and data monitoring” which enables it to operate in a more sophisticated and efficient way.

“It will mean a move away from a passive network carrying energy in one direction, towards a more intelligent grid communicating between all parts of the system from generators through to the appliances in people’s homes,” explains ENA in its 2015 Guide to the UK and Ireland Energy Networks.

ENA has also commissioned independent research which has found that development in smart networks will save UK consumers up to £12bn by 2050. As well as investment in infrastructure, the sector’s future depends on attracting new talent. It has an ageing workforce and faces a serious skills gap. If not tackled, this could pose a barrier to much-needed innovation and smart grid development over the coming years.

What skills will be required and what opportunities will exist?

The National Skills Academy for Power says that engineers will be in demand for transmission and distribution jobs over the next five years and beyond in areas such as design, planning, networks and operations.

“New technology and innovation is an ongoing part of the power industry,” adds Ronnie Moore, head of client management at the academy. “The interface with the new renewables network has created many challenges and exciting job opportunities.”

Dawn Collier, talent acquisition manager at UK Power Networks, says that with serious skill shortage facing the sector in the coming years, there is a wealth of opportunities available for young people and considerable career stability and progression.

“The skills that will be particularly in demand are on the operational and engineering side of the business,” she says. “This includes roles ranging from craft attendants and craftspersons to engineering project managers and design technicians. If individuals want to play a role influencing the energy industry’s future and want to join a critical sector at a critical time of change, UK Power Networks and companies like us are always looking for new and exciting talent to join our organisation.”

Meanwhile, Scottish & Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) says that in the future skills will have to take into account the challenge posed by the extreme locations of renewable resources.

“The continuing need for renewable energy means there are exciting projects out there at the moment,” says a spokesperson. “HVDC (High Voltage Direct Current) underwater cable connections to islands is one that comes to the fore. Offshore wind farm projects as well as onshore wind farms all have a big part to play in the growth of SSEPD.”

Who are the potential employers and what are the best routes into the industry?

ENA members and potential employers include National Grid and National Grid Gas, SSE, SGN, UK Power Networks, Northern Gas Networks, Wales & West Utilities, Northern Ireland Electricity, ESB Networks, Electricity North West, Gas Networks Ireland, Mutual Energy, Northern Powergrid, Scottish Power and Western Power Distribution.

Graduate and apprenticeships routes exist and, where and when applicable, details of these can be obtained from the companies’ respective websites.

Aside from academic qualifications, Moore says employers look for commercial awareness, enthusiasm, customer and relationship-building skills and individuals who are prepared to work flexible hours and in different locations. Collier adds that UK Power Networks looks for those willing to embrace its values, which include responsibility, continuous improvement, unity and integrity. Both its graduate and apprenticeship programmes are accredited by the IET and endorsed by Energy & Utility Skills. SSEPD also offers graduate and apprenticeship programmes and it says personal attributes are just as important as academic achievements.

“We are looking for candidates who have a strong interest in engineering and a fascination with how things work,” says the spokesperson. “You’ll be a self-starter with good team work and problem-solving skills. We’ll encourage you to be imaginative, share your good ideas and work to a high standard.”

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