Green shoots: graduate engineering career guide to renewable energy

The renewables industry offers a chance to be part of an almighty shift in Britain’s energy landscape with many options for new graduates interested in the sector.

Why work in renewables?

It’s your chance to help save the world from climate change

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A DeepGen tidal turbine ready to be installed at the EMEC research centre in Scotland.

Bringing down carbon dioxide emissions in order to prevent runaway climate change is arguably the greatest challenge facing the world today. The UK alone is legally required to cut its emissions 80 per cent by 2050 and developing large amounts of renewable energy generation will be a vital part of meeting that pledge. The huge research and development effort needed to bring down the cost of renewables means, ultimately, it is engineers who will make a future free from the dangerous impact of climate change possible.

It’s a fast-growing industry helping secure the UK’s energy supply

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The UK is just starting to tap its renewable energy resources.

Saudi Arabia has oil, Russia has gas, Australia has minerals… and the British Isles has thousands of miles of turbulent coastline and windswept land. More than a mere obligation to comply with, renewable energy is an exciting, thriving and rapidly growing industry in its own right that is becoming increasingly important to the UK economy, especially as importing energy is becoming more costly and more polticially difficult.

The sector is also growing at breakneck speed: in the first quarter of 2014 renewable energy technologies contributed nearly 20 per cent of the UK’s power mix, helped by high winds, rainfall, and a surge in new construction in the solar farm industry. And don’t believe the naysayers who claim that the industry is simply propped up by government funding and subsidies. The sector has attracted almost £30 billion in private sector investment since 2010 – enabling it to sustain over 100,000 jobs.

It offers a challenging and rewarding career

Siemens eröffnet weltgrößte Testzentren für Windturbinen in Dänemark / Siemens opens world’s largest wind turbine R&D test facilities
Siemens has renewable energy research centres in Denmark and the UK.

While the renewables industry does draw lessons from other sectors, notably offshore oil and gas, it is a truly innovative sector that is finding its own way as it matures. That means there are real challenges and problems to work on throughout the lifecycle of projects, from manufacture, installation and maintenance of generators through to their safe disposal. Designs and manufacturing methods are constantly improving and what’s needed are sharp, ambitious graduates to spearhead that process.

What does the UK’s renewable sector actually do?

It designs and builds the world’s largest wind farms

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Vestas and Siemens are planning wind turbine manufacturing facilities in the UK.

Wind is probably the most mature technology in the renewable energy sector, and the UK now has 648 wind projects in operation with over 4,500 onshore turbines and 1,000 offshore turbines delivering a total capacity of 11GW of power. That includes the world’s current largest wind farm, the 630MW London Array in the outer Thames Estuary.

The actual manufacturing of turbines has previously had a slightly turbulent time in the the UK, with the world’s largest turbine-maker, Denmark’s Vestas, closing its Isle of Wight factory in 2009. Fortunately, last year it opened a research and development facility on the Isle to make and test 80m prototype blades for its next generation of turbines. And MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, a partnership with Mitsubishi Heavy Industry is now hoping to build a new turbine factory in Hull.

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The UK has over 7GW of onshore wind capacity.

That’s in addition to the confirmed £310m Siemens Wind Power factory to be built in the city, bringing 1,000 jobs when it gears up for production in 2016. Siemens, the world’s third-largest turbine maker, also employs around 350 people at its Renewable Energy Engineering Centre in Manchester, which works on systems to transfer energy from offshore wind farms to national power grids.

After wind farms are assembled and running they have to be operated and maintained, which creates a particular challenge when turbines are offshore — and that generally falls to the utility companies (often working with engineers from the manufacturers). The key operators in the sector include E.ON UK Renewables, DONG Energy, Centrica, ScottishPower, SSE — although there is also a raft of smaller British operators, including Cumbria Wind Farms, Ecotricity (based on Gloucestershire) and B9 (based in Northern Ireland).

It captures large amounts of solar energy – yes really!

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Blackfriars Bridge is among the innovative urban solar projects in the UK.

Although Britain is hardly sun-drenched, in recent years there been a big increase in large-scale, ground-mounted solar farms (as opposed to rooftop installations) that have a capacity of anything up to 30MW. You may have even seen them from the train window passing between cities. There are now some 360 ground-mounted solar farms with a total capacity greater than 250kW and around a further 60 above 10MW.

Approximately 25 acres of land is required for every 5MW of installation and so they are often in rural locations. Britain’s largest farm is actually at the site of a former Second World War airfield in Leicestershire – operated by Lark Energy. The photovoltaic panels themselves are mostly made (very cheaply) in China and to a lesser extent Germany. Lightsource Renewable Energy, Solarcentury, Solafields, British Solar Renewables are some of the key operators of large-scale solar farms in the UK. As well as building rural solar farms, several of these firms have also been involved in unusual urban installations such as the Solarcentury Blackfriars Bridge in London (which also includes a railway station).

It’s a pioneer in generating energy from the sea

Unterwasserturbine liefert Strom aus Ebbe und Flut
The Marine Current Turbines SeaGen in Northern Ireland was the world’s first commercial tidal generator.

Marine renewables (wave and tidal) represent the least mature technology in the sector but also what many consider to be one of the most promising. At certain points along the UK’s coast the tide flows at an impressive 11km an hour, and unlike wind it’s inherently reliable and predictable. In total, the UK’s oceans produce an estimated total of 50-90 TW-hours of ‘technically and economically recoverable’ energy per year — that equates to 14-26 per cent of the country’s total demand.

As a result, the UK has become a testbed for new technologies to capture marine energy and boasts three world-leading research centres: EMEC in Orkney, NAREC in Northumberland and Wave Hub in Cornwall. Meanwhile the the world’s first commercial marine energy project, a single 1.2MW SeaGen tidal turbine designed by Marine Current Turbines (now part of Siemens), became operational in 2008 on Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.

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The UK is home to several firms pioneering wave energy technology.

Several other commercial tidal sites are in the pipeline, including ScottishPower’s 10MW ‘Sound of Islay’ project off the Inner Hebrides (currently under construction), MeyGen’s 9MW Pentland Firth scheme between Orkney and the mainland. Siemens has plans for Wales’ first commercial tidal project in Anglesey (although this was recently put on hold), while Swansea could soon become home to the world’s first tidal lagon power station if plans are approve.

Above the waves meanwhile, Edinburgh’s Pelamis was the world’s first company to deliver electricity from offshore wave power with its unique floating hydraulic generator that flexes and bends with the waves. The company’s first large-scale installation is likely to be the 10MW Farr Point Wave Farm in Northern Scotland, due to go online 2016, with around three other projects in the offing. Other companies pioneering alternative designs for wave generators include Inverness-based AWS, which wants to deploy hundreds of pneumatic “wave cells”, and Edinburgh’s Aquamarine Power, which has developed a novel “Oyster” wave pump.

So what jobs are on offer to engineering graduates?

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Siemens, SSE, RWE Innogy and Centrica are among the firms that run UK-based renewables graduate schemes.

The sector needs engineers across research and development, manufacturing, and installation and operation. Graduates might end up designing new turbine blades, helping to project manage the roll-out of a new solar farm or investigating different systems to allow more effective inspection and maintenance. And engineers aren’t just needed for generation: National Grid and the utility companies are developing new to connect and manage renewable installations as part of the wider electricity network.

The German engineering giant Siemens is investing considerably in UK wind energy and has a structured two-year graduate scheme to support its activities that acts as a major entrance route to the sector. Entrants can qualify as a chartered engineer through the Institute of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE) with mentoring from an experienced chartered engineer. Other companies that run UK-based graduates schemes include SSE, RWE Innogy and Centrica, while DONG and Vattenfall have European-based schemes.

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A Siemens renewables graduate at the company’s training centre in Newcastle

There are three broad entry routes for graduates on the Siemens scheme. The project management stream is based at Siemens UK HQ in Frimley, Surrey, with travel across the UK and mainland Europe. Here graduates develop a broad range of skills from technical expertise to commercial awareness to leadership and management skills. For this you’ll need a four-year Masters degree in any engineering discipline.

Graduates are also recruited into research and development at one of Siemens’ Centres of Competence at Keele and Sheffield universities, established to supply the company with manufacturable designs. For this route you’ll need a degree in electrical or electronic engineering, with a base knowledge of power generation. Lastly there is a dedicated scheme for service renewables, which is based mainly in Newcastle with placements around the UK. This basically entails looking after both offshore and onshore wind farms, with remit to service all parts of the wind turbine above what’s known as the ‘transition piece’ that supports the turbine. Energy services graduates have mechanical, aeronautical, electrical, electronic, metallurgy and materials degree backgrounds.

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Pelamis is among the innovative small renewable firms that recruit graduates.

It’s also worth acquainting yourself with the sector and making approaches to some of the smaller operators and manufacturers. At the time of writing Pelamis Wave Power was recruiting a graduate position within its hydraulic engineering team, a role focused on developing and manufacturing a key enabling aspect of its technology.

It may sound a cliché, but by joining the renewable sector at this time, you really will be working right at the cusp of a revolution in the way we produce energy.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.