Shifting skills in the renewable energy sector

As the renewable energy sector grows, so does its need for skilled people. Indeed, without some smart thinking, there may not be enough skilled people to meet future needs.

Renewable energy is a sector very much with a future. Although countries remain committed (in various degrees) to the traditional energy sectors, almost all have ambitious plans to increase their dependence on renewables.

Windfarm

This is a market that the UK is very much a part of. By 2020, the UK needs to generate 15% of its power from renewables - reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. 15% of the UK’s power is a lot of power – and it has to come from somewhere. (This isn’t a ‘nice to have’ – if we don’t have 15% of power from renewables, lights will be going out up and down the UK.)

Each country is pursuing its own strategy – mixing renewables with more established means of generating power. (For example, Germany, which has committed firmly to moving away from nuclear power, now has to make an even bigger commitment to renewable sources of energy. Portugal is mixing wind with a lot of solar power.)

The favourite candidate in the UK (given our less-than-sunny climate) is wind – especially offshore wind. We have plenty of this - and it’s pretty consistent, too. In fact the UK currently has the one of the largest commitments to offshore energy in the world - it’s estimated that within five years, the UK, China and Germany will be operating 83% of wind turbines on water (source: a study by Douglas Westwood Ltd, marine and energy consultant).

But ramping up a new, substantial means of energy production isn’t without significant challenges. One of the biggest of these is skills – where will all the people come from to design, build and manage the massive wind farms needed to support 15% of the UK’s energy? Stepping back – where do all the people come from to support the needs of EU countries and the rest of the world?

Bear in mind that this sector is very new – core parts of it are only around a decade old. Experts, or a workforce of any size, are thin on the ground. The current state of play in the UK is that energy companies are investing in fairly modest-sized wind farms of between 30 and 100 or so turbines. We say modest – it still takes pretty significant teams of people to make these a reality.

As with other industries, projects are worked on by a mix of contractors and employees – for several reasons. Some skilled workers want to work as contractors whereas some simply don’t. Some organisations like to pay for the resource they need on a project-by-project basis, whereas others want to build up an employed workforce.

Yet there’s another factor affecting work in the renewable energies sector – generally, the pay in oil and gas tends to be stronger. This isn’t because renewable energy companies are mean - because the setup costs for renewables are higher than established industries, something has to give. But as time goes on, implementation costs will reduce because of natural efficiency, reduced manufacturing costs and so on – so this isn’t likely to be a permanent state.

So what motivates professionals in the energy sector to move into renewables? Well, a lot of their work has been outside the UK - and, for some, this is a great chance to move back. It’s also a great chance to get into an industry on the ground floor. New opportunities are opening up too – providing scope to learn and drive a career forward in a different direction.

Yet enough skills can’t be grown from nowhere. So, in some cases, people with compatible skills (or partly compatible) can migrate from other industries – sometimes which are directly related and sometimes not. Perhaps someone with offshore experience in a traditional energy industry can retrain. Or someone with an engineering or electrical background could have skills which are close to those required. In this way, enough people can be found to support the UK’s growing renewables requirements.

But the future isn’t wind farms of 100 turbines. Some projects on the drawing board contain around 1000 turbines. The enormous scale of these projects sees energy companies working together to mitigate the risk and share the rewards – and of course the requirement for skilled people grows exponentially. It simply isn’t possible that these projects can be resourced via new talent - retraining/reskilling is going to be a massive and vital part of the UK’s renewables strategy.

Nor is it likely that companies will be able to retain a paid workforce – the attraction of contracting, especially financial, will be too great. So, contracting (which is already a cornerstone of the industry’s skills-acquisition profile) is set to become more important. Those with rare skills are likely to become more sought-after – and will find a ready local and global market for their skills. All of which is almost certain to drive salaries upwards.

Quanta has been working in the renewables sector for since 2005 and perhaps 95% of our work is in providing people for offshore wind farms, primarily in the UK but also in Germany, France and across Europe. We’re seeing first-hand the way in which people are successfully cross-skilling and reskilling to participate in the growth in this sector – and how those with established skills are very much in demand. Indeed, we’re directly involved with some of the UK’s largest projects – retained to provide contractors over a period of several years. Finding the right people can be a challenge – but we’re succeeding and building a reputation for doing so.

As the size of projects increases, we expect to develop this part of our business significantly, to help the UK meet its renewable energy needs.