Rob Fletcher investigates the growing career opportunities for engineers in the green sector.
With fossil fuel supply limited and dwindling, and nuclear power still politically contentious, it’s well known that we’re increasingly turning to the more elemental forces of nature – mainly the sun, water, wind and wood – to satisfy our energy needs.
The more cynical among you might be tempted to dismiss such options as unrealistic and fit only for the kind of people who like to sit around attempting to knit jumpers out of muesli. However, whether you’re a believer in the benefits of ‘renewables’ or not, few sectors offer such good job prospects at present. And you won’t need to learn to hug trees, live in a tree houses, grow a lengthy beard or wear tie-dyed t-shirts in order to join the growing ranks of renewable environmental engineers.
Alison Barbuti, of Kingston University, offers several reasons why now is a great time to sign up for the sector, not least the fact that the share of the market for renewable energy is expected to increase by at least 50% globally by 2050. “As a result of targets set by national and international agencies, there will be a net shortage of highly skilled engineers needed to develop, operate and maintain renewable energy technologies in the near future,” she tells Civvy Street.
Bringing possibilities rarely seen since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, Alison believes that Service leavers should be well-placed to cash in, even if they don’t have all of the necessary engineering qualifications. “Ex-military personnel often have a range of attributes,” she says, “including transferable skills, flexibility to change, being very good at meeting challenges, being focused and self-disciplined. We also find generally former service personnel have a good approach to learning new skills and problem solving and are project focused.”
While it is certainly possible to find employment in the sector without an MSc or similar qualification, Kingston’s MSc in Renewable Energy Engineering offers the chance to achieve better paid positions, in that it “aims to prepare specialist graduates for senior technical and management positions in industries such as power, construction, aerospace, petroleum, automotive, and manufacturing.” And the types of positions available to graduates include project managers for offshore wind construction, wind forecasting managers, energy and eco-design specialists, wind resource analysts, renewable energy consultants and energy conservation officers.
The bad news for some is that minimum entry requirements for the course are a 2:2 honours degree in engineering or related science subjects, although applicants with industrial experience will be considered on merit. The good news is that the programme can be undertaken full-time or part-time by block release, allowing Service leavers the time to resettle and/or work at the same time as they study.
Essentially the options are endless for those who graduate and the course itself is also rewarding, in that it provides a novel approach of deploying general engineering concepts in the design and development of sustainable energy systems. It integrates mechanical, thermal, electrical/electronic and control engineering principles for the conversion of renewable energy to power.
Stephen Green served as a Weapons Engineer Officer in the Royal Navy for 27 years, reaching the rank of Commander before leaving in May 2008. The day after his terminal leave finished, he started work as Technology Project Manager with Regen South West – an Exeter-based renewable energy agency – and, in the intervening period, much of his growing frustration with life in the Services has disappeared.
He is now the project manager for the South West Bioheat Programme, a pioneering programme delivering exemplar biomass wood fuel installations in the SW region, and promoting the uptake of wood fuel from sustainable regional forestry resources. Aimed at commercial/business installations, the programme is delivering a diverse range of installations to horticultural nurseries, schools, housing developments, a dairy, and combined heat and power plants – one of his client sites is actually the MoD at Azimghur Barracks in Wiltshire. The sites will consume an estimated 30,000 tonnes of wood fuel a year and save, he points out, around 25,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year alone.
Stephen was, in his own words, facing “Limited (and diminishing!) promotion prospects” in the Navy and was keen to move on, although at the same time he was unwilling to uproot his family from their base in South West England – including his son, who was settled in a good local school.
The renewables sector appealed to Stephen for a number of reasons. Not least, because it is “an expanding sector, (that) gave me the chance to undertake a worthwhile and rewarding second career in the SW region, an opportunity to use my translatable skills, as well as a pleasant change from defence-related work.” Plus, for Stephen, the transition to a civilian career was relatively straightforward as it required no further qualifications.
Stephen took on his new position as a fully-qualified APM project manager and Chartered Electrical Engineer with a Systems Engineering background. And, thanks in part to these qualifications and his own experience gained in the Navy, his “main difficulty in new job,” was simply “deciding what to wear each day to come into work!”
Stephen’s enthusiasm for the job is such that he he’s “delighted” with the change and has “no regrets or reservations about leaving”. As a result, he’d not only be more than happy to recommend a similar move to other Service leavers, but also feels ex-Service personnel have a huge amount to offer.
His main advice to Service leavers is they must recognise that they share many and varied translatable skills – even though they do not necessarily realise it: in particular, there’s “their innate ability and commitment to see a difficult job through”, as well as their team-working ability.
“Working in renewable energy,” he concludes, “is an exciting, expanding and challenging environment that gives a high degree of job satisfaction.”
THE MOVE TO RENEWABLES:
Britain already has more offshore wind power than any other country, according to Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. “The natural resources are there and waiting to be harnessed: two independent reports found the UK has the largest potential for wind energy in Europe, and one of the greatest natural wave power resources in the world.”
Following a major consultation in 2008, the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) published a Renewable Energy Strategy that set out how the UK can increase its use of renewable energy sources. This will allow the UK to tackle climate change (for example, reducing UK emissions of carbon dioxide by more than 750 million tonnes by 2030) and help secure the nation’s future energy supplies – reducing fossil fuel demands by 10% and gas imports by up to 30% by 2020. “With cleaner energy, new opportunities for jobs and greater security of supply, this plan shows a clear route to a cleaner, better energy system,” added Miliband
As part of EU-wide action to increase the use of renewable energy, the UK Government has committed to sourcing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – an increase in the share of renewables by almost a factor of seven (the figure was just 2.25% in 2008) in scarcely more than a decade. To help ensure this happens, the UK Government has established an Office for Renewable Energy Deployment (ORED) which will “drive delivery” of the Government’s targets in conjunction with local and national authorities and private sector partners.
Progress has already been made, though much more still has to be done. “Renewable electricity has doubled in the UK in five years, and in the last year alone, onshore wind capacity grew by almost a third, and offshore by two thirds,” Miliband added.
Not to be outdone, the Scottish Government in Edinburgh has set its own target, wanting half of electricity used north of the border to come from renewable sources by 2020 – and have set themselves an interim target of 31% by 2011 – the figure for 2007 was 20.1%. Scotland has been estimated to have 25% of Europe’s wind energy potential, as well as a quarter of Europe’s tidal energy resources. As a result, investment is increasing; this summer, the Danish wind turbine manufacturer Skykon announced that it was significantly expanding its construction facilities in Campbletown, Kintyre, which would enable it to boost staff from 100 to 300!
The Welsh Assembly Government, meantime, aims to achieve ‘zero carbon’ emissions from all new buildings in Wales by 2011, and has committed to reducing green house gases by 3% a year from 2011 in areas where it has responsibility.