Power houses: training and skills for low-carbon energy

Concerns over whether the UK has the skills base to meet energy targets has led to a range of new offerings from universities

Renewable energy is on the UK’s agenda
Renewable energy is on the UK’s agenda

With almost a quarter of its generating capacity due to come offline over the next decade, the UK energy sector is gearing up for an era of almost unprecedented change.

There is no single solution available. A range of technologies, from new nuclear, renewable energy and cleaner methods of fossil-fuel generation will all play a critical role in helping to meet some of the world’s most-demanding low-carbon targets while keeping the UK’s lights on beyond 2020.

But despite the huge importance of these sectors to the UK’s energy future, there are genuine concerns over whether we will actually have the skills base to meet ambitious targets across a range of sectors.

To address these issues, an increasing number of universities are offering courses aimed at enhancing the skills base in these vitally important emerging areas of the UK energy industry.

One of the critical areas is new nuclear. Nuclear currently accounts for around 20 per cent of the UK’s generating capacity and with all but one of the existing reactors due to come out of service by the middle of the next decade, plans to build a new generation of reactors are already well advanced.

However, with no new UK reactors being built since the 1980s, many veterans of the UK’s nuclear energy programme are now approaching retirement and the industry is expected to need a fresh injection of up to 1,000 new highly skilled graduates a year.

“Many veterans of the UK’s past nuclear energy programme are now approaching their retirement”

Thankfully, a number of British universities are offering a range of courses aimed at addressing this urgent requirement for expertise.

Imperial College has taught nuclear engineering more or less continuously since the 1950s and indeed hosts the last university-based reactor in the UK. Over the last few years, in response to the UK’s nuclear renaissance, the university has expanded its portfolio of teaching areas.

Most recently, Imperial’s Department of Materials introduced an MSc in Nuclear Engineering, offering students the opportunity to specialise after the completion of their first degree. Imperial also offers two routes to studying nuclear engineering to undergraduate level, enabling students studying mechanical, chemical or materials engineering to transfer onto an MEng nuclear course before their third year or to take up a number of nuclear engineering modules without committing to a full course.

Another key centre for nuclear engineering education is the University of Manchester’s Dalton Institute- a dedicated centre of nuclear expertise.

The institute is working closely with UK government, Cogent (the Sector Skills Council for Chemicals, Nuclear, Oil and Gas, Petroleum and Polymers) and industry organisations involved in nuclear skills initiatives to ensure that the courses it provides are relevant to real-world needs. It offers a portfolio of short courses covering both technical skills in nuclear science and engineering and executive education for business leaders. Distance-learning options are available for some courses and the institute also offers tailored short courses, designed to address specific business needs relating to the nuclear landscape, governance, policy, supply chain and materials.

Nuclear engineers are currently in demand
Nuclear engineers are currently in demand

Beyond the world of nuclear engineering, there is also an increasing demand for skilled engineers in the UK’s burgeoning renewable energy sector, which is expected to generate 15 per cent of our energy by 2020.

This August, in one of the latest initiatives aimed at delivering the skills required in this sector, Vince Cable announced a £6.5m investment in a scheme designed to groom the future leaders of this emerging sector.

As part of a new Industrial Doctorate Centre in Offshore Renewable Energy (IDCORE), leading universities and industry will provide training for up to 50 of the best engineering students.

Working at the heart of industry, alongside global leaders such as EDF Energy, Shell and Rolls-Royce, the students will be trained in the most innovative future technologies from designing cost-efficient new windmill blades to testing the latest wave-energy technology at leading facilities such as Edinburgh University. The engineers will also be trained to understand the needs of business and develop their entrepreneurial skills alongside boosting their research and technical skills.

The first graduates, who are expected to begin their training in January 2012, will gain an internationally leading engineering doctorate.

Training will be delivered by Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Exeter universities, together with the Scottish Association for Marine Science and consultancy HR-Wallingford. The companies taking part include EDF Energy, BP, Caterpillar, E.ON, Rolls-Royce and Shell.

“There is also demand for skilled engineers in the UK’s burgeoning renewable energy sector”

The centre forms part of the Research Councils UK Energy Programme, which aims to position the UK to meet its energy and environmental targets and policy goals through world-class research and training. Led by the EPSRC, the Energy Programme is investing more than £530m in research and skills to pioneer a low-carbon future. This builds on an investment of £360m over the past five years. The centre will also form a key part of the ETI’s marine and offshore wind programmes, addressing a priority area for the ETI’s engineering and technology developments. The ETI has so far invested £61m in these two programme areas.

David Ingram PhD, professor of computational dynamics at the University of Edinburgh and centre director, said: ’If the UK is to meet its ambitious targets for renewable energy deployment in 2020 and 2050 we need to dramatically increase the number of highly trained engineers with expertise and understanding in resource assessment, project planning, device development, grid integration and environmental impact.

As well as renewables and nuclear, power generation from fossil fuel-fired power plants is still expected to play a major role in satisfying future energy needs. However, as the largest single source of CO2 emissions, many feel that if it is to continue to make a major contribution, then the rapid development and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which prevents CO2 from entering the atmosphere, will be essential.

Largely unproven at scale, CCS is an emerging area of study at a number of universities.

Most recently, in response to industry demand for more qualified engineers in this field, Cranfield University has launched an MSc course in carbon capture and storage.

Dr Meihong Wang from Cranfield University explained the reasoning behind the new course. ’There is a significant shortage globally of skilled engineers and technologists to help countries meet ambitious CO2 emission-reduction targets,’ he said. ’Power-generation companies require personnel who can design, construct and operate carbon-capture facilities for new and existing fossil-fuel-fired power plants, as well as CO2 transport networks.’

The Cranfield MSc course in carbon capture and transport, which enrols its first students next month, is the latest development in a significant investment in energy teaching and research at Cranfield in recent years.

A new suite of masters programmes focusing on the energy sector has been launched, coupled with investment in brand-new industrial-scale facilities, placing Cranfield University as a leading provider of top-quality graduates and new technologies within the energy sector. The growth has been stimulated by the university’s close association with leading industry partners such as Alstom Power, BP, E.ON and Doosan Babcock, who have shaped the content of Cranfield’s educational offerings and its focus on academic and developmental research.

Applications are expected from graduates with engineering or related science degrees keen to pursue a career in cleaner-energy systems by specialising in CO2 capture and transport or from those currently in employment who seek to extend their qualifications or to pursue a career change. Graduates from this MSc course will be equipped with the academic skills and requirements to successfully pursue a career in the energy sector, CO2 capture and transport industries, research organisations or academic institutions.