Digitalisation of the sector will form a key part of the clean energy transition, driving down cost, enabling efficiency and providing safety. And the good news is, it has already started with many companies recognising just how important digital transformation will be in aiding the world in reaching net zero targets.
There is still a long way to go and the skills gap in the energy sector surrounding digitalisation will only grow if time is not taken now to invest in developing the current skilled workforce we have in the UK, as well as attracting other industries across.
Seeking transferrable skills
For a long time there has been a specialist approach in the energy sector when it comes to recruitment. While this has delivered the right candidates up to now, as we move into the future and specifically towards greater digitalisation, there are huge opportunities to look at the transferability of skills from other industries such as IT.
Skills such as problem-solving and project management are essential to the renewable energy sector. We need candidates that can not only come up with innovative and new ideas but also deal with the challenges that come with bringing these ideas to life. Effective communicators will also be important in transforming the energy industry which has long been resistant to change but now has targets to meet - and is a main focus of government and policymakers.
The energy sector needs the right skills to meet net zero
Currently, the UK is in real danger of not having a skilled UK workforce to meet net zero targets. The skills gap has emerged for a number of reasons.:
- There has been a steady decline of students opting for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at school and graduate level. Over the past ten years, the number of undergraduate entrants in both engineering and technology has fallen dramatically.
- A large percentage of the energy workforce is heading into retirement; with 120k engineering professionals being retired by 2026, and
- There is a lack of understanding around transferable skills - both within and outside of the industry, which has led to companies not investing in upskilling the workforce they have, and being ill equipped to meet future energy demand. Research indicates that over the next ten years, 30 to 40 percent of jobs in the industry will not exist, and thus will transform into new jobs. The blend of work in the pipeline is changing and new, more innovative and productive techniques will require a mix of skills in the future.
For the younger generation, the lack of interest in STEM has been driven by misconceptions surrounding these subjects and what careers might be available to them. The Engineering Report 2020 revealed that almost half (47%) of 11 to 19 year olds said they knew little or almost nothing about what engineers do.
Worse, this limited knowledge is often distorted; not only is engineering seen as difficult, complicated and dirty, it is often also considered a male profession. The report also revealed that in 2019, just 39% of young people aged between 14 - 16 year olds said they ‘know what they need to do next in order to become an engineer’ and this figure has remained fairly static over time.
Not enough input has been given by the government, businesses and the education system to create noise around why these roles are so important for the future. The development of clean energy needs people willing to drive innovation, work with cutting edge technology and affect positive change.
The shift to clean energy and the emergence of revolutionary technologies has created a wave of new roles and will continue to do so. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) 2020 report found that the accelerated uptake of renewables could boost total energy jobs to 100 million by 2050 globally with 42 million of this total working in the renewable sector.
Digitalisation to play a major role in the energy revolution
Although there will always be high demand for traditional engineering roles, there is an increase in the need for data analysts with energy companies wanting to collect, organise and interpret statistical information. The reading of data will play a major role in energy companies understanding future energy consumption and ultimately will shape a sustainable net zero energy system. There has also been growth in artificial intelligence roles and cyber security with all data, communications and applications needing to be secured in line with policy.
With every new technological advancement in the energy sector there has to be monitoring, research and development to progress it further and reach its full potential. All of which can now be done digitally, providing real time results through the mass of data produced, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Data scientists and engineers will play a key role in energy companies transforming the way we use and deploy clean energy.
The growing role of hydrogen
The use of hydrogen as a clean fuel for example, has been limited but is growing in the UK and forms a key part of the government’s 10 point plan. A number of projects are currently up and running across the UK, especially surrounding the use of hydrogen vehicles in the public transport sector and heating. In Aberdeen we have seen the deployment of 15 hydrogen double decker buses which have already completed 100,000 miles in operation saving 170,000kg of CO2 from the environment.
For the first stage of this project, there has been a support team of hydrogen specialists on the ground in Aberdeen as well as an escalation team and a technical back-up team on 24-hour call. These roles will provide amazing insight and the data we need to understand where and what infrastructure will be needed to see a mass rollout of hydrogen technology.
The end user (domestic consumer) is now more than ever conscious of their usage and also the impact that usage has on the environment over time. Bulb’s research found 37% of people in the UK say they’ve lived more sustainably during lockdown which included being more mindful of energy use at home and recycling more.
We have seen the rollout of smart meters to customers across the world, allowing people to be more in touch with just how much energy they use on a daily basis. For energy companies, smart meters provide vital information they need to create smart energy grids, predict how much energy is needed where and when so supply and demand can be better anticipated, and contribute to the decarbonisation of energy and reduction of emissions.
For the development of smart grids to truly revolutionise the energy sector we will need smart energy practitioners and electrical engineers with an ability to code and script, alongside app developers and data analysts who also understand energy. This might be a tall order but it does provide an opportunity for upskilling an already accessible talent pool as well as those within the IT sector to consider applying their skill sets to another sector.
Moving into the energy sector at the right time
There is no way of knowing what skills may be needed in ten years’ time as the energy sector is now on a trajectory of fast change as it has to be and technology never stands still, but this is what is great about moving into the industry. The renewables sector may still be relatively young but it is growing at pace opening up opportunities at every level.
STEM will always form part of the backbone to the energy industry and it is now more important than ever to encourage the younger generations to take up these subjects and be involved in revolutionising the energy sector.
One of the most important parts of achieving net zero is understanding that it will take an array of different skills from a range of different backgrounds that we never even connected before. There will always be a new way to do things and a more effective way to get things done.