Higher education rises to renewables challenge

Universities are responding to the changing needs of the energy industry by launching a number of new postgraduate courses

The UK’s energy sector is changing fast as the nation faces up to the challenges and opportunities of renewable and low-carbon power, leading many of its engineers to wonder what the ’green revolution’ might hold for them.

Hardly a week goes by without an announcement connected to the emerging technologies and the infrastructure needed to support them. Siemens’ decision to site the UK’s first major offshore wind-turbine plant in Hull is but one recent example.

The government hopes that this activity will mean new jobs, and that many of them will be high-skilled, well-paid engineering and technology-led posts. Predictions of the number of green jobs that the UK can expect are almost as numerous as the project announcements. Around 45,000 posts from the offshore wind sector alone and 250,000 from supporting energy efficiency in the built environment were just two of the numbers on offer over the last year.

Great expectations: few doubt that renewables will become very important

Even if the forecasts turn out to be on the optimistic side, few doubt that renewable and low-carbon energy will become significant industries needing skilled engineering talent, whether in R&D, system design, specialist manufacturing or project build and operation.

For many qualified engineers, securing one of these posts will require some level of further study or training to add to their skills base. Universities are responding to the changing needs of the energy industry by launching new postgraduate courses designed to deliver those skills.

Predictions of the number of green jobs expected are almost as numerous as the project announcements

Many are also investing in facilities and equipment dedicated to the emerging technologies, allowing students and researchers to gain hands-on experience of key systems and processes.

’Over the coming years we face an unprecedented energy revolution, with every country needing highly educated engineers to understand and apply a vast array of new and varied energy generation systems and approaches,’ said Prof Feargal Brennan, head of the Offshore, Process and Energy Engineering Department at Cranfield University.

Cranfield University has developed industrial-scale facilities to aid research and teaching in areas including wave, wind and tidal energy, bioenergy, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The new amenities include microalgae production laboratories and a fully functioning vertical axis wind turbine test facility. The latter comprises a turbine tower, control system and battery-storage equipment, allowing the testing of turbine rotors up to 100kW.

Cranfield is launching two new masters programmes, with more planned in 2011.

The first is its MSc in Renewable Energy Engineering, which the university said has been developed to produce highly qualified engineers who can make a significant contribution to the industry. It aims to equip graduates with the advanced interdisciplinary skills needed to design, optimise and make technical and economic evaluations of renewable energy schemes.

Study time: many engineers will retrain

The Renewable Energy Engineering MSc is suitable for aeronautical, mechanical and electrical engineering graduates, or related science graduates, who wish to specialise in renewable power generation, said Cranfield.

The university’s second new course is its MSc in Carbon Capture and Transport, a field in which Cranfield recently secured two UK Research Council-funded projects.

The course is geared up to produce the skilled professionals needed to design, build and operate carbon-capture systems for new and existing fossil-fuel-fired power stations and transport networks. Suitable applicants are likely to be engineering and applied science graduates who want to specialise in the technical and managerial aspects of carbon capture and transport, according to the university.

Cranfield is currently accepting applications for the courses for fulland part-time study routes.

The wider issue of sustainability and how innovative technology can reduce energy consumption and address the climate-change agenda is a focus for a number of UK university postgraduate courses.

A good example is De Montfort University, Leicester, where the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development (IESD) has built up a wide portfolio of activities around sustainability in the built environment. The IESD is heavily involved in efforts to reduce energy consumption by buildings and the impact of industrial operations on the environment.

Many universities in the UK are investing in facilities that are dedicated to emerging technologies

De Montfort offers three masters courses through the IESD. The Climate Change and Sustainable Development MSc is a broad programme designed to provide the skills needed to tackle the challenges of climate change and sustainability.

The Energy and Industrial Sustainability MSc is aimed at those who wish to specialise in reduction of industrial operations on the environment, while the Energy and Sustainable Building Design MSc was created to tackle the increasingly important issue of applying new and renewable energy technologies to buildings. It offers the chance to learn the simulation and modelling techniques needed for credible building analysis and gain the ability to work creatively in a multi-disciplinary design team, said the university, which added that all its courses benefit from the internationally recognised research expertise of the IESD team.

As the UK’s renewable and clean-energy economy develops, individual regions and their universities are also emerging as centres of excellence based on long-standing research expertise or links with the energy industry. Scotland and the north east of England, for example, are transforming their heritage in industries such as shipbuilding and offshore oil and gas production into skills and assets that can serve the new energy economy.

The Durham Centre for Renewable Energy (DCRE), based at Durham University, is a ’virtual institute’ spread over five of the university’s departments and one of four centres that make up the wider Durham Energy Institute.

In wind power, for example, Durham is the fundholder of the EPSRC’s Supergen wind-energy technology programme, which is carrying out leading-edge work on the performance, reliability and structural issues surrounding turbines.

Future focus: universities are looking to help facilitate an ’energy revolution’

The university’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences offers an MSc in New and Renewable Energy designed to teach students the key engineering aspects of the technologies and equipping them to secure posts in industry or research around the world. The taught masters programme is available through one year’s full-time study and allows students to select programmes that are most suited to their interests.

The Scottish Energy Centre (SEC), based at Edinburgh Napier University, is involved in technologies including wind, micro-hydro, biomass, fuel cells and solar energy. According to the university, the presence of the SEC and academic groups such as the Sustainable Energy Research Group provide strong foundations for its MSc in Energy and Environmental Engineering.

The fullor part-time masters course at Edinburgh Napier provides students with advanced engineering skills and the ability to develop and manage projects, leading to employment opportunities in areas such as energy production, environmental engineering design and building services.