Working for a cleaner future

Government White Paper’s support for emissions reduction targets paves the way for opportunities in the renewable energy and nuclear industries

This spring the renewable energy sector and nuclear industry were handed an enormous boost in the shape of the government’s Energy White Paper.

This stressed their importance in meeting emissions reduction targets in the coming years, and paved the way for increased confidence from investors in both research and the building of new facilities.

As a result, from the nuclear industry to wave, wind and biomass power there is currently a general expansion of staff. This means that for those with an interest or previous experience within those sectors, a vast range of jobs are now becoming available, all with good long-term prospects as part of a rapidly-growing industry.

Though it will be some time before it is known whether more reactors are to be built, the government has expressed strong support for the role of nuclear power in meeting the country’s long-term energy needs. The last nuclear power station built in the UK was completed in 1995. However, the recent resurgence of interest in nuclear power as part of this country’s efforts to meet international carbon emissions reduction targets means that the industry must start to prepare for the future.

Whether or not the government decides to expand nuclear generation, staff will be required to man existing plants for some decades to come. ‘We are currently looking at life extension for Hinkley B and Hunterston and need to make sure there are enough younger people to whom skills can be transferred,’ said Sarah Johnson, British Energy’s head of organisational development.

The company has already developed an internal knowledge management database to ensure that key pieces of know-how are stored for the future once existing staff have retired. ‘We are also enhancing internal training,’ she added.

The outcome of the government’s consultation on nuclear power is due at the end of the year. ‘We will have a more concrete idea of the future of nuclear new-build by the New Year,’ said Johnson. ‘Before the first spade goes in the ground we must look at reactor designs, sites and so forth. But after this, we will start a strong recruitment programme.’

Recently, British Energy has undergone a period of restructuring, during which it has examined its skills base and age profile. As a result, in the last four years over 1,000 new staff have been recruited, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields.

‘Most of the staff recruited in engineering and technology roles are employed in generation,’ said Johnson. ‘As well as looking to enhance our skills base we have been examining our age profile. Though the average age is now 43, we still anticipate that a third of our workforce is to retire in the next 10 years.

Key skills

‘To support our current stations, though, there are a number of key skills we are looking for at present. We are particularly seeking people with skills in controls and instrumentation,’ she said. ‘However, all engineers, whether they have mechanical, electrical or civil expertise are also welcome.’

Given its role in ensuring a low carbon future, she believes nuclear power should appeal to those with concerns over their role in reducing the energy sector’s environmental impact.

‘One of the major attractions of working for British Energy is the major contribution it is making to preventing CO2 emissions because nuclear generation is carbon-free,’ said Johnson. ‘Last year the nuclear industry saved the country from emitting over 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, compared to its energy output if it had been generated using coal or gas. We have a strong role to play in reducing climate change going forward.’

Though the industry may not be at the same early stage as marine energy, for instance, it is certainly not standing still. ‘I have worked for the industry for 24 years and the environment has been constantly changing,’ said Johnson.

‘This has been driven by both technology and market conditions such as changes in government policy. However, it has resulted in an exciting time in the company offering many challenges and opportunities. Obviously, the possibility of new-build is adding to this.’

In the past, the energy sector has been dominated by a number of large companies. However, in the field of renewable energy there are now also an increasing number of roles for skilled engineers emerging form smaller start-ups.

The Renewable Energy Systems (RES) group is one of the world’s leading renewable energy developers, working globally to develop, construct and operate projects that contribute to a sustainable future for power generation. And while the company’s focus has so far been on the development of wind systems, it is now expanding its activities into renewable heat and power technologies and sustainable design for buildings. Technologies being used include biomass, ground source heating and solar thermal systems.

‘We have recently been looking for electrical engineers, structural design engineers and a geotechnical engineer, particularly people with previous experience of working with biomass and renewable energy in general,’ said Ranjini Sachin, Renewable Energy Systems’ recruitment officer. ‘The reason behind this is that with growing interest in the sector, the company is undergoing general expansion.’

But while demand for power from renewable resources is growing — not least because UK companies are under great pressure to reduce their carbon output or face financial penalties — the sector appears to be facing a shortage of experienced engineers.

Ocean Power Technology (OPT) specialises in cost-effective, advanced, and environmentally sound offshore wave power technology. The company’s PowerBuoy system extracts the natural energy in ocean waves for conversion into electricity, through the integration of patented technologies in hydrodynamics, electronics, energy conversion and computer control systems.

So far, 40kW-rated PowerBuoys have been installed in Hawaii and New Jersey, and OPT has begun the initial phase of installing a 1.39MW wave farm off the northern coast of Spain in a joint venture with the Spanish utility Iberdrola SA. A full-sized demonstration plant of up to 5MW capacity is planned for installation in UK waters.

‘Recently we have been recruiting for several roles, including a senior mechanical engineer, systems engineer, hydraulics engineer and a marine engineer as well as production and commissioning engineers,’ said OPT’s Rachel Mitchell. ‘However, we have found it very difficult to find hydraulic engineers with large-scale hydraulic systems experience — there just don’t seem to be enough of them out there’


Swan Turbines has a patented technology that harvests tidal energy in a similar way to an underwater wind turbine. The company aims to provide a low-cost method for exploiting the £4bn UK tidal energy market and is currently looking at a site in Scotland where it will roll out its first device.

‘We intend to deploy a 350kW tidal stream turbine next year so we are building this at the moment,’ said Ian Masters, Swan’s financial director. ‘We have also been gaining a lot of interest from people who are looking to carry out feasibility studies and are looking for engineers working at project level in the future. We are ready to go with our technology, but equally, we must make sure that this happens.’ Masters agrees that attracting skilled staff to the sector can be a problem. ‘We get a many recent graduates contacting us, and equally, postgraduates who have been studying in the area,’ he said. ‘However, it is a lot more difficult to find people with more experience.

Expanding divisions

‘We recently had to advertise twice in six-months to fill an electrical engineering post.’ While many wave and tidal projects may be situated in the more remote regions of the country, Masters sees this as an advantage. ‘Being based in Swansea may put some people off, but our office is 100 yards from the beach. I can’t see why that wouldn’t be attractive.’

Meanwhile, larger power generators are also expanding their renewable energy divisions. This means they too are joining the fight for staff. ‘There is definitely a shortage of skilled engineers within our section of the market, and I imagine most other large energy providers feel the same,’ said Diane Burkin, resourcing specialist for energy wholesale and technology at E.ON.

Burkin said this lack stems from historical conditions, under which the energy industry reduced headcount in a deregulated market, making it seem unattractive to new entrants. However, with billions of pounds now being invested in new plant and low carbon technology, the sector’s fortunes have been completely reversed, leading to a rise in recruitment once again.

‘We now face the challenge of trying to turn people’s perceptions around,’ said Burkin. ‘They may have felt that it wasn’t the place to develop a long-term career, but actually it is an area where you can have a real career for life.

For instance, E.ON has a low rate of attrition for engineers — it is attracting new people to the industry that we need to improve which is why our apprentice programme is so important.’ The company is currently looking for civil, mechanical, electrical and control and instrumentation engineers to help deliver its development projects.

As E.ON has found, the newer the technology, the harder it is to find staff. ‘Biomass is a developing new area, so there are very few people with skills there,’ said Burkin.

But despite the obvious attractions of carbon savings in renewables, Burkin is also keen to stress that there is still a wealth of long-term opportunities in the coal and gas-powered sector. ‘The government’s targets for emissions mean that new lower carbon technology is going to play a significant role,’ she said. ‘We are always looking for good people who can take part in E.ON’s leading- edge research and development activities.’

Growing importance

While the renewable sector may still consist of relatively small players, there is no doubt of its growing importance in securing the country’s energy future as OPT’s Mitchell points out. ‘This industry is currently in its infancy, but is rapidly growing and has very exciting times ahead,’ he said.

Be it within a larger, established generator or a start-up, moving into an industry that is just finding its feet means that there is scope to have input into the technology upon which it will be based. ‘You can help to determine the entire direction of it,’ said Masters. ‘It’s like going back to the start of the automotive business — you are not just building another car.’

‘Everyone recognises that renewable energy is the way of the future,’ agreed RES’s Sachin, who pointed out that as well as increasing public support, policy is also pushing the country towards growing exploitation of its renewable energy resources.

Given the level of expansion this will necessitate, anyone with industry experience will be in great demand as the sector grows. ‘As well as this, the government is increasingly bringing in legislation that makes the need for such systems more important,’ she said. ‘It is an attractive area in which to work because any company that is involved from the very start will be best placed to do well in the future as we rely more and more on renewable systems.’