Could the renewables wind be blowing your way? S&YP finds out.
Jonathan Hughes certainly couldn't complain that his job as an instrumentation and electrical engineer lacks challenge. Just over a year after graduating from a combined electrical and electronic engineering degree at Newcastle University, he is leading the data acquisition work involved in setting up a major internal test facility for offshore wind turbines at Narec (New and Renewable Energy Centre).
Narec, in the North East of England, is a national centre dedicated to accelerating the deployment and grid integration of renewable energy and low carbon generation technologies, using offshore wind, wave, tidal, solar and thermal power. Hughes explains that when complete, the testing facility will be able to carry out ultimate load and fatigue testing on complete wind turbines and nacelles (which house the generating components) up to 10 MW.
"The basis of the facility is to provide a whole lifetime of wear in a controlled and highly monitored environment and thus allow for design issues to be addressed before the nacelles are installed offshore," he says. "It's a big project and very challenging as you're trying to establish what the customer requires. It is still early days in the management and design of these new, larger offshore wind turbines in the UK so my current role is a good mix of getting stuck in and also dealing with customers and suppliers to discuss requirements."
Hughes is also involved in a project to develop a smaller, underwater version of the test system for use on marine generators, which will also be built at Narec in Blyth, Northumberland.
In a year when rising unemployment has made grim reading for UK graduates across many disciplines, the renewables industry, particularly the wind sector, provides a bright, glowing spot on the horizon for the new generation of engineers. The UK is already the world leader in offshore wind and in wave and tidal energy and the Government's Renewable Energy Strategy (RES), published in the summer, has given it a further boost. The RES provides a clear roadmap on how the country will reach its target of generating 15% of energy consumption from renewables and it commits the Government to an increase in renewables generation from 5% today to 30% by 2020. Predictions are that it will lead to the growth of a new £60bn industry and the creation of 60,000 UK jobs.
Even before the RES was published, much was already being written about the industry's skills shortages. A report on the employment opportunities in the wind, wave and tidal energy sector, published last year by the business consulting firm Bain & Company, said that the imbalance in demand and supply in the wind energy labour market is seen as the fourth most significant barrier to growth. It reports that "acute" areas of shortages include project managers, electrical engineers and turbine technicians.
The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) says the exact scale of employment opportunities will depend on how the industry shapes up and, for example, how much of the supply chain for the industry ends up being UK-based. It is also calling for the Government to take stronger measures to encourage local authority planners to approve wind energy schemes and deliver the strategic grid network expansion which is central to the development of renewable resources. Early indications though, are that the roadmap will translate into jobs for the UK's young engineers.
"We've now got the funding and the political will needed to enable us to look at our long-term resourcing needs," says Dan Simpson, head of HR in the energy division of Siemens. He says there will be opportunities for under- and postgraduate mechanical engineers to work on the installation and servicing of turbines and in project management. The firm, which is setting up two centres of competence in the UK, will also be looking for PhD power engineering students to be "thought leaders" in this sector.
As well as major organisations such as Siemens, opportunities are likely to exist in smaller companies and consultancies, which have already proven to be key in the industry's development. A spokesperson for Scottish Renewables, a forum for Scotland's renewable energy industry, says there are some companies out there that are small now but which are likely to develop into very big players: "It's a relatively young industry and we've seen young engineers come in and develop new technologies in areas such as wave and tidal that have never been seen before." (For those interested in a career in renewables, it has published a guide, Get into Renewables, which features case studies of those working in the industry; see links box)
BWEA says that the industry view on qualifications is that at undergraduate level, it is best if students gain an all-round understanding of the core power engineering skills that are needed as a foundation to work in the industry, while MSc courses and PhD study are the best means of gaining knowledge to prepare candidates for specialist roles (Narec recently announced the sponsorship of two PhD studentships with the School of Engineering at Durham University).
While there is no doubt that opportunities will exist for qualified engineers, as in any jobs market there is a big demand for actual experience. Sam Newell, who launched the Renewable Energy Jobs site earlier this year, says most junior engineering jobs (although not all) still require a year's experience. The advice is to try to acquire experience, focusing on the specific area of renewable energy that you are interested in.
"The skills and experience needed for wind can be quite different to those required in other civil engineering roles and very different from other sources of renewable energy such as solar power," he says. "There are also differences between the experience needed for offshore and onshore wind although clearly these are much more similar. Senior and executive roles have much more crossover between technologies but for junior engineering roles the difference in the experience needed for wind/solar/waste-to-energy is a lot bigger."
Young engineers should also be aware that the renewables sector demands more than just core technical skills of its engineers and management and that soft skills are often advantageous, given the nature of the work. Richard Boud, associate director of the environmental and engineering consultancy Entec UK, says as well as technical competence they need "modern engineers" who will be able to handle the environmental issues and deal with the demands of stakeholders. "They have to have an appreciation of all of the issues involved and this means the political, environmental and social as well as the technical ones," he says. "If I send someone out on site I need to know that they will be able to deal with all of the people they'll meet, understand their concerns and be able to explain why their work is necessary."
When asked about the "hot" technical skills, he says there is a huge demand for high voltage engineers because of the grid connection work that will be required over the coming years. "And it's not just about how we physically connect to the grid but how the new large offshore wind farms can be incorporated," he says. "In some cases we're going to be connecting to some really remote parts of the grid. There are an awful lot of challenges out there and there aren't enough power engineers."
Dr Anna Ferguson, 31, is an electrical engineer at Narec, undertaking an MSc in electrical power systems, and agrees it is a very exciting time for power engineers. She is working on a number of consultancy and R&D projects at the organisation and this includes looking at the grid connection of a combined heat and power plant which sees her working alongside Jonathan Hughes. She says she is also learning about fast transient analysis and looking at lightning protection for electricity substations, as well as getting involved in economic modelling and market analysis in terms of the renewables market.
"We had the telecoms revolution and I think the next one could be power," she says. "Power in general offers a lot of opportunities; in addition to renewables it is likely that there will be development in areas such as clean coal and nuclear over the next few years. Also, there is the issue of ageing assets on networks, and there is starting to be much more investment in the networks in general. When I was at university, power was certainly less glamorous and most people on my course chose telecoms or went into the City. The IET has also done a lot with its Power Academy."
Both Ferguson and Hughes are enjoying the challenge that the renewable energy sector is bringing them in their respective roles. Hughes said that prior to joining Narec, he felt the graduate training schemes offered by the bigger companies seemed to provide everything a young engineer could want but he doesn't believe they would have given him the same level of responsibility or the breadth of work that he has in his current role. He says his aim is to keep his hand in across a number of disciplines but his main focus will remain the domain of instrumentation.
"I get to work alongside a number of our technical specialists, from electrical and mechanical backgrounds, and I enjoy helping them understand their issues by providing high-quality data," he says. "Internally, after much more experience, I am on a path that could lead to becoming more specialist in the instrumentation role, and the renewables sector is certainly one where quality measurements will be in demand for many years to come."
Opportunity to network
Matching qualifications with experience is a problem for young engineers who want to break into the renewables industry and it can be tough to get a placement or internship. Fruzsina Kemenes, skills and education policy officer at the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), says the onus to do this is often on the student and there aren't many clear pathways to get into the industry. "With so many small companies in the sector, it can be difficult to know where to start searching for a placement but with a little bit of research you can find out who is involved with what area of the business," she says. "A student has little to lose and a lot to gain by sending out speculative applications for internships."
BWEA is staging its first careers event on 22 October as part of its annual conference, BWEA31 at ACC Liverpool. This could prove a valuable networking opportunity for young engineers. As well as employers and training providers, professional careers advisors will be there to advise potential recruits, who also have access to all the industry display stands at the main conference.
This year sees the first cohort of PhD students join the University of Strathclyde's Doctoral Training Centre for Wind Energy Systems. They join a substantial wind energy research activity at the university and will work closely with industry to help develop a national centre of excellence to help meet the country's renewable energy targets. "We're looking for strong engineering and science graduates who can apply their knowledge to the broad range of subjects that relate to wind energy," says David Infield, Professor of Renewable Energy Technologies. "Ten high-quality UK students will be funded each year; they should become the wind engineering leaders of the future."