Careers: A position in power generation

With the UK’s energy mix becoming ever more diverse, a host of engineering opportunities are emerging in less-well known areas of power generation

Earlier this year, something extraordinary happened to the UK’s energy grid. For one day in June, a record 70 per cent of the electricity produced in the UK was low-carbon. That day was dubbed ‘stunning Sunday’ by one grid manager, because the carbon intensity of producing power moved below 100g of CO2 per kilowatt hour for the first time. This is the level that Britain must hit daily by 2030 if it is to meet its renewable energy goal of cutting emissions by 57 per cent, compared with 1990 levels, in just 13 years.

That is a tremendous challenge that requires a shift away from reliance on oil and gas towards renewables, including emerging forms of ‘clean’ energy generation, such as tidal power, pumped hydro and anaerobic digestion (AD). The UK is beginning to embrace these industries, which some claim could help bring about an ‘epochal transformation’ to the country once the infrastructure is in place for wide-scale roll-out.

Tom Goodwin
Tom Goodwin at anaerobic digestion firm Marches Biogas

Now, as the energy mix changes, the sector is on the lookout for engineering talent that can help implement plans for a low-carbon future.

“With the continual evolution of technology, I fully expect continual growth that will edge us closer to achieving the long-term vision of sustainable towns and cities,” said Scott Lutton, operations manager at Bellshill-based Vital Energi. “In respect of engineering careers, the growth of the sector is positive as opportunities are continually being created for people at the beginning of their career journey, as well as people wishing to diversify into the energy sector.”

Vital Energi was responsible for installing one of the first combined heat and power (CHP) community energy centres that served a new-build development in Greenwich Millennium Village. That installation, more than a decade ago, marked a change in how new-build developments across the country generate energy. The energy landscape has changed drastically since then, and Lutton says it is an even more exciting industry to work in.

Today, companies specialising in areas such as combined heat and power, anaerobic digestion, pumped hydro and energy storage are recruiting for talented engineers in a variety of areas. Apprenticeships and short courses can help new engineers get up to speed with the technologies. For existing engineers in parallel industries such as oil and gas, moving to emerging sectors is often a natural progression, with many sharing the same technical and project management skills.

Another area likely to see a demand for engineers is tidal energy. For instance, if the Swansea Bay Tidal lagoon gets the go ahead, it is expected to create 2,000 jobs during its construction alone. And the company behind the scheme, Tidal Lagoon Power, hopes to build five other lagoons, at Cardiff, Newport, Colwyn Bay, Bridgewater Bay and in North West England.

“Working in the engineering industry I have been fortunate to be involved across varying sectors, from industrial, commercial to infrastructure and more recently energy,” said Lutton. “Being from a diverse background, I really enjoy the challenges the energy sector brings. No two jobs are the same, meaning learning and development is continuous. We are fortunate to be involved in looking at long-term sustainable offerings for forward looking clients… What’s not to like?”

Today, energy companies invest around £18bn each year in the economy, which is around 14 per cent of all private sector investment. They also make up a huge part of the national infrastructure pipeline, with analysts estimating that £140bn needs to be invested in new-generation capacity by 2030. As such, the sector is a major recruiter, directly employing 137,000 people and supporting more than 500,000 jobs in the supply chain.

“I particularly like working in an industry that makes me feel good about what we are trying to do overall – make energy from waste or surplus resources,” said Tom Goodwin, a process engineer at AD firm Marches Biogas. “On a day-to-day level, I enjoy the variety of the work. One day, I may be trying to find the right pump and macerator combination to move a difficult media, the next I may be looking at environmental considerations, such as controlling drainage water or odour control.”

tidal lagoon
Tidal energy will see a demand for engineers Image: Tidal Lagoon Power

The AD sector has undergone a period of rapid expansion and is beginning to stabilise, so careers are less to do with construction of new builds, and more to do with bringing the right knowledge to the right place, said Goodwin. “There are a lot of projects that never really *met their performance criteria, or do but could have additional capacity under the right circumstances. Career opportunities are now to do with having the right know-how to identify the root cause of a problem, and solve it with minimal process disruption. This naturally lends itself to prospective scientists and engineers looking into careers in consultancy and other knowledge-based fields.”

Goodwin said engineers considering a career in AD must have a high tolerance to odour and the willingness to get their hands dirty. “Some sites are kept in better condition than others, and the smell or mess may well be the reason you’re on site in the first place… Engineers in this field also need to be flexible and willing to learn – the basics of AD are straightforward, but the subtleties in applying these to give a reliable, robust process are what separates the professionals from the amateurs.”

Otherwise, one of the most important skills in any area of the energy industry is the ability to communicate effectively with a variety of people, from site operators through to scientists and financial controllers. The ability to think in terms of risk and safety is also crucial across all energy sectors.

Can these things be transferred from other sectors? “Absolutely,” said Goodwin. “It is more about mindset and having a ‘can-do’ attitude than anything else… In the first few months of a career in AD, you will probably feel bewildered with the range of considerations, equipment and process parameters that everyone else is talking about so matter of factly. Don’t panic. Take notes, study a bit and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

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