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Skills shortages for UK renewables industry revealed

Prof Peter Crossley

The UK's forthcoming transition to a low-carbon future has been much touted as a financial and environmental solution. However, it remains uncertain whether the UK has the appropriate skills to underpin a renewable energy revolution. Professor Peter Crossley, Director of the Joule Centre, examines the situation.

In January, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed plans to create at least 100,000 UK jobs as part of a public works scheme to ease unemployment during the recession. A crucial part of this plan is investment in alternative energy sources and green technology, creating 'green jobs' in wind and wave power. US President Barack Obama has also planned a multi-billion-dollar Green New Deal, but, relative to the size of Britain's economy, Brown’s New Deal is actually even bigger.

Many people thought that the Government’s commitment to renewable energy would be pushed aside during the economic crisis, but this announcement proves otherwise. It’s fantastic news for the renewables sector, heralding real hope for a successful move to a low-carbon economy in the UK. However, it also highlights a pressing issue: the skills shortage that is rapidly emerging in the UK renewables industry.

Scarcely a week goes by without a story appearing in the press that highlights the limited uptake of maths and science among young people. Recent studies have shown that there is a distinct shortage of skills in this area emerging in the UK. While we pin our hopes on highly-qualified engineers and scientists to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and roll out the UK’s renewable energy schemes, the skills to put these plans into action are in dangerously short supply.

Skills overlap with oil and gas industry

There has been optimism that the skills needed may lie in diversification between the renewables sector and the oil and gas (O&G) industry. UK oil production peaked in 1999, while gas production peaked in 2000. Both are expected to decline to more than half their peak rates of production by 2011. Stagnation and decline in O&G creates a potential for the industry's workers to transfer their skills into the renewables sector.

O&G companies have experience in areas such as supply chain co-ordination, manpower and equipment supply, procurement, planning and logistics support. Civil engineering skills and the ability to undertake construction activities in adverse conditions are also crucial for the renewables industry. For offshore windfarms, in particular, marine expertise is vital: cable laying, lifting and installation; use of equipment like sub-ploughs; and knowledge of marine legislation and control. These are all skills shared by O&G workers.

Ideally, as O&G declines and renewables undergoes growth, a happy overlap of skills should emerge between the two sectors, with O&G diversifying into renewables. However, even as it approaches stagnation, O&G is still far more profitable than renewable energy, which means that experienced engineers continue to radiate towards the bigger salaries and benefits of O&G. The fact is, the UK urgently needs to build skills in science and engineering from scratch, if it is to reach its lofty renewables targets in the next few years.

Encouraging renewable energy knowledge and skills

Funded by the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA), the Joule Centre facilitates research and development (R&D) in the energy sector, contributing to building skills around demand reduction, renewables and other low-carbon solutions. The Joule Centre’s aim is to encourage skills by putting money into projects that have clear and tangible benefits. Exciting R&D projects abound, as researchers across the region engage with wind, hydro and solar power; LED lighting; PEM Fuel Cells; and much more. However, a historic and continuing lack of uptake in the core subjects related to energy, as well as a changing global economy, means the UK is still in a predicament.

Under a Government scheme to increase uptake of the sciences at school level, 1000 more students of science and mathematics have entered university over the last three years. However, the number of university students has increased across the board, which means that there has been little change to the proportion of people studying maths and science.

To achieve world class prosperity and fairness, the UK must have world class skills.
Lord Leitch

The Ernst & Young Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Indices, which list the most attractive countries for investment in renewable energy, suggests that the UK’s ascendancy in the sector is already slipping. According to preliminary 2008 figures, the UK has dropped to sixth place, while China rises through the ranks to fourth place, with India third. These emerging economies continue to undergo huge growth. By 2015, China is likely to have become the third largest economy in the world. Crucially, the skills base in China and India is also strengthening. The number of workers with high skills in these developing economies remains proportionately low, but their sheer population size means that they have high absolute numbers of skilled workers. India and China together produce around 4 million graduates each year. This compares with the 600,000 higher level qualifications attained in the UK.

Advances in technology and an increase in the outsourcing model of business mean that distance is no longer a barrier to doing business. This means that the most skilled workers are the most prized, no matter their location in the world. It’s a simple fact that if the UK does not produce more skilled workers in the energy sector, then other countries will be able to fill the skills gap. It is important to heed the words of Lord Leitch in his 2006 Review of Skills: “To achieve world class prosperity and fairness, the UK must have world class skills.”

If the first step is recognition of the skills problem that is facing our move to a low-carbon economy, the next stage must be strong support for renewables and demand reduction systems. While organisations like the Joule Centre are both able and willing to play an increasingly important role in delivering the skills and expertise needed for a low-carbon future, the situation requires more strategic Government drivers and incentives to safeguard the uptake of relevant subject areas.

Skills outlook is still good

It’s important to remember that, while the skills shortage must be properly addressed, the outlook for skills in the energy sector is far from bleak. The Joule Centre recently announced its latest crop of Seed Corn grants, one-year projects that are intended to stimulate new areas of research. In one project, Dr Xiongwei Liu’s young team at the University of Central Lancaster are building important skills in the renewables sector. In their study, they will be examining the innovation of small wind turbine technologies – notably, issues associated with their use in isolated communities.

In order to make the most of our renewable energy output, we must also reinforce our skills in the drive to reduce energy use. Demand reduction is a vital part of managing our energy consumption. Some of the brightest minds at the University of Manchester are working with Dr P.T. Mativenga to devise ground-breaking ways that industrial companies can reduce their environmental footprint, by reducing energy and oil consumption. Optimising the efficiency of everyday equipment goes hand-in-hand with demand reduction. Also at the University of Manchester, Professor A.C. Smith and his team are undertaking a study into the properties of a new superconducting material – Magnesium Diboride – with intention of improving response time and to optimise the overall performance.

The renewables sector can no longer just be seen as the realm of scientists and environmentalists. A wide range of skills is needed to bring our vision of a low-carbon future to fruition. Skills at all levels are required in renewables: from the ‘black trades’, through to technicians and graduates. The UK is certainly not lacking in the natural resources necessary to be at the global forefront of renewable energy. But now its academic capacity needs to be more clearly focused to encourage uptake of the skills necessary for a truly sustainable future.


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Bioenergy  •  Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Geothermal  •  Green building  •  Other marine energy and hydropower  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Solar heating and cooling  •  Wave and tidal energy  •  Wind power