Advanced search

Time to skill

Britain’s energy system needs a major rebuild to meet the challenges of energy security and tackling climate change. The main challenges are keeping the lights on and a 90 per cent decarbonisation of the economy by 2050. By then the economy could be twice the size it is now but CO2 emissions will need to be one-fifth of the current total. To achieve this by 2050, energy efficiency will need to improve by at least three times and the carbon intensity of energy must decline by one third or more.

Compounding the challenge will be the closure of about 40 per cent of the UK’s generating capacity in the next 15 years or so, as old coal and nuclear plants are decommissioned. The generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure will need a revamp. The rebuild programme for electricity alone will cost around £200bn.

The transport infrastructure will also need a major upgrade to improve energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions. Cars will need to be lighter and have more efficient internal combustion engines. New technologies such as more sustainable biofuels and electric mobility will have to be developed and deployed. And new low-carbon methods will be needed to heat buildings.

We can be daunted by this, but we ought to be invigorated. It spells opportunity for new technology and jobs, for a more efficient economy and for greater energy security. It also spells opportunity for UK businesses to develop products and skills that can be sold at home and abroad.

The key to achieving this is scientific and engineering skills. The energy industry has long been one of the most high tech, and as new technologies emerge and climate-change needs are tackled, the technological demand will increase. Fluid dynamics, combustion engineering, metallurgy, materials, catalysis, polymer chemistry, bio-sciences, signal processing, telemetry, cryogenics, seismology, nanotechnology, robotics, supercomputing, separation, electronics and linear programming are just some of the technologies that must be pushed to the limit.

This is not just about fundamental science and technological development. Rebuilding the energy system is a giant project that needs to be delivered through major physical infrastructure. That means a huge demand for craft and practical skills in building and operation.

The troubling point is that this comes against a backdrop of many skilled people heading for retirement age and fewer people taking their place. Fewer people are pursuing a scientific and technical education and not all of those that do are attracted to the energy industry.

A whole-systems approach is needed to ensure we get the skills required.

Here is a summary five-point plan:

  • Spread the message through schools and universities about the great careers and job satisfaction the energy industry can provide. Make sure the message is heard by men and women of all backgrounds
  • Start early by getting primary- school children interested in science with fun workshops and experiments
  • Keep the interest going through secondary school with the right facilities and teachers
  • Revitalise apprenticeship programmes with an emphasis on the craft skills vital to the energy infrastructure
  • Encourage universities to provide and promote more science and engineering degrees and courses.

Closing the skills gap will need the government, industry and academic professions to work together. It is a matter of necessity and opportunity.

James Smith
President Energy Institute
Chairman of Shell UK

BSc in physics, chartered accountant

Employed by management consultancy Accenture and worked as a consultant on Shell’s global financial systems in 1980

1983-2003 Worked in all of Shell’s major businesses and was head of technology, strategy and sustainable development

2004 Appointed chairman of Shell UK

2009 Elected president of the Energy Institute


Have your say


My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article