Powering the future, today

4 min read

The need to cut carbon emissions and reduce their impact on the environment mean renewable energy is the world's fastest-growing source of electricity generation.

Given international pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the development of technologies able to produce inexpensive renewable energy in an efficient manner is critical. Electricity generation counts for over 40 per cent of man-made emissions, so increasing the amount produced using alternatives to fossil fuels is vital.

The government says that 15.4 per cent of all electricity must come from sustainable sources by 2015, rising to 20 per cent by 2020. Yet today, just over five per cent of the UK's electricity supply is green.

These targets — together with concerns over the security of the UK's energy supply, which is becoming increasingly dependent on gas from politically unstable regions — are driving innovation in the renewables sector forward at quite a pace.

The sector is becoming so important that several of the large energy companies are setting up divisions focusing on alternative energy, which is creating a wealth of vacancies for skilled engineers.

'In the UK, wind power is a very topical subject in renewable energy, with quite a number of both onshore and offshore wind farms being planned,' said Edward Woodward, sales and proposals manager at the New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC). 'Tidal power is also doing well, while energy generation from photovoltaics and biomass is in demand abroad. Companies such as Shell and BP, for example, are involved in photovoltaic activity in countries such as Malaysia.'

Shell Renewables was established in 1997 and is now delivering solar, wind, biofuels and hydrogen technology. The company says it has invested $1bn in alternative energy since 2000 and is putting more money still into wind and thin-film solar power technologies, with the aim of having a substantial commercial business in at least one alternative energy technology in future.

It is a partner in the first Dutch offshore wind park, which began construction in March 2006. This facility, which is just over six miles (10km) off the coast of the Netherlands, is expected on completion to generate sufficient power for more than 100,000 households. The company is currently recruiting in Europe for a number of positions at the facility, with vacancies including turbine, electrical and structural engineers.

Though long involved in solar power, fellow energy giant BP recently decided to consolidate its involvement in alternative generation through the creation of a new division. BP Alternative Energy, based in Sunbury, Middlesex, launched in November 2005 and has since been looking for experienced engineers with a wide range of capabilities.

Such opportunities will not be short-lived. The company has plans to double its investment in alternative and renewable energies and wants to build a low-carbon power business able to deliver revenues of around $6bn a year within the next decade. When the company was unveiled, its parent promised $1.8bn of investment over the next three years to be divided among solar, wind, hydrogen and combined-cycle-gas-turbine (CCGT) power generation technologies.

BP already controls 10 per cent of the global photovoltaics market, which is growing at 30 per cent a year — faster than any other form of renewable energy. It is planning a plant at Peterhead in Scotland that will turn natural gas into hydrogen by stripping out CO2 and pumping it into depleted oil reservoirs.

Alongside the oil companies, electricity generators are also expanding their alternative power operations. 'The power industry is one of the most exciting, influential and diverse industries to be involved in as an engineer, a trend that looks set to continue into the future,' said Jonathan Periselneris, an engineer with E.ON UK's Power Technology division.

'The industry faces major challenges including reduction of environmental impact, the requirement for new-build and the continuation of developing a successful, competitive business,' he said.

E.ON is pursuing renewables strongly, as well as looking at technologies such as clean coal and carbon capture. It is also working on the demand side, examining how to make improvements to consumers' efficiency to reduce power consumption.

'The skills developed by engineering staff allow full involvement in tackling these issues at all levels of decision making — often from day one — consequently allowing excellent opportunities for career progression,' said Periselneris.

The company is keen to recruit engineers who would like to specialise in one area of the business. 'We are looking for engineers who want to make one particular area of expertise their own,' explained Derrick Farthing, director of E.ON Power Technology. 'We are involved in construction and deployment projects and look for employees for this, but what we are really after are people who want to make an area such as sequestration their strength. The industry tends to have a number of general engineers but fewer specialists in operation.'

To attract and retain such staff, E.ON has a dedicated support scheme for employees, including mentoring. Much investment is put into training, as well as emphasis on the development of management skills.

Since joining E.ON UK's power technology division, engineer Dan Blood has pursued a career in power plant engineering. 'The sector is undergoing a period of enormous change and faces numerous challenges ahead; existing plant requires life extension, new plant must be built to ensure a continued and diverse generation portfolio and we must constantly review technology developments to take advantage of them where we can,' he said. 'Crucially, these activities are underpinned by the requirement to move towards a lower carbon future.'

E.ON is not the only electricity generator that has recognised the importance of developing a division specialising in alternative power. Npower renewables is one of the UK's leading renewable energy developers and operators. It offers engineers opportunities to work with onshore and offshore wind farms, hydroelectric projects and the marine sector.

As well as operating conventional power stations, the company also co-fires biomass. According to HR adviser Rachel Heaford, the company offers an excellent salary and benefits package, as well as opportunities to gain experience and understanding from existing renewable energy staff. Employees can also access knowledge from those operating in the wider RWE Npower business.

'Engineers work across the renewable energy technologies and across departments in both mechanical and electrical capacities,' she said. 'In the field of operations and maintenance they are responsible for keeping existing projects operating safely and at maximum productivity.

'In technology departments they have key roles in understanding electrical and mechanical aspects, collecting and analysing wind assessment data and undertaking studies to ensure that projects are designed to meet stringent industry guidelines.'

As the call to cut carbon emissions gathers strength, and regulations to ensure that targets are met, the alternative power sector is set to continue growing at a substantial rate.

The need for large amounts of new build to replace fossil-fuelled power stations will require an increasing number of engineers. Anyone choosing to design, build, operate or maintain the technologies to power the future stands to do very — today.