What’s your current role?
I run a renewable energy engineering consultancy, Wattcraft. We work with a range of clients – companies or other organisations like local councils or schools.
We are technical advisers on energy systems. We work with clients to understand their current energy usage – what machinery they use, when they use it, how they heat their buildings. Then we suggest ways to meet their energy needs, which includes use of renewable energy. This can include solar photovoltaic (PV) panels (which convert sunlight into electricity), biomass (burning of wood or other organic material to generate heat and electricity), wind turbines or micro-hydro systems (small-scale hydroelectric systems for rivers and streams).
The first thing we look at is whether energy use can be reduced – can machines that use a lot of power be switched off at certain times, or heating reduced in areas of a factory? Then we look at how unavoidable energy needs can be met, trying to choose renewable energy where possible.
The most important factor for clients is usually cost – most companies simply want to cut their energy bills. Nowadays, the cost of energy use varies through the day – it’s most expensive when demand is highest, in the middle of the day. So we also look to see if companies can operate machinery when power is cheaper to use, or generate and store energy at cheap times of day and use it at expensive times.
Once we’ve presented our initial options, we then work up detailed plans, help organisations find the right companies to install their energy-generating equipment, and oversee the work of these companies to make sure they build what they have been asked to build.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I chose to do science and maths A-levels but I didn’t initially have any plans to be an engineer. I realised I wanted to do something applied and practical, so chose to do a mechanical engineering degree.
I got interested in renewable energy at university. When I graduated from The University of Manchester in the mid-1990s, there weren’t that many job opportunities in the field. I opted to do a renewable energy master’s degree from Loughborough University to build my specialist skills. After that, I got a job with a water company, working mainly on water and waste-water engineering projects – renewable energy generation from sewage sludge was only part of my job. But it gave me useful experience and I was able to get a specialist renewable energy job at Arup, a major international engineering firm. After 10 years there, I decided to set up on my own.
I always wanted to use my engineering to have a positive impact on the world, and was long concerned about the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels. Renewable energy seemed like an essential route to go down to limit this damage.
There are many exciting technological developments taking place in renewable energy for engineers to engage with. There has been a huge amount of technological innovation in renewable energy already, both in terms of national supply and smaller-scale systems for single houses or businesses. Onshore wind power (such as wind farms) is now as cheap as fossil fuels, the efficiency of solar PV panels has improved and their costs have come down a lot. There isn’t much scope for new large-scale hydroelectric power schemes, but micro-hydro systems can be suitable for sites close to running water. Biomass energy generators are another option but need to be run a large proportion of the time to be economical.
What has been frustrating has been an apparent lack of political commitment to renewable energy in recent years. We have set ambitious targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase use of renewable energy, but policy changes have made this harder to achieve. If they are to succeed, developing forms of renewable energy need investment and economic support or they will be too expensive to use. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be a coherent national strategy to support the renewable energy sector.
It’s a reminder that technological progress is only part of a solution – national policy and political will are also critical. As are social attitudes – development of onshore wind farms is being held back by planning regulations and opposition from landowners and local residents.
What’s the best thing about being an engineer?
Engineering gives you skills that you can use to have a positive impact on the world. Engineering provides all kinds of opportunities – it’s down to you how you apply them, but there’s endless scope to make the world a better place through engineering.
On a day-to-day level, I enjoy helping clients understand their energy challenges, how they can be solved and implementing the solutions – it feels as if we have achieved something together.
Can anyone become an engineer?
There are a range of different types of engineer. It’s useful to have some background in maths, a logical approach to problem-solving, and a curiosity about the world around you. But not every engineer is a maths prodigy and super-analytical – there’s something for nearly everyone if they have the interest, the enthusiasm and the right attitude.
What three things should young people know about engineering?
- Engineering isn’t just about invention in isolation. Many factors affect which problems are seen as important, what kind of solution is needed, and whether these solutions are actually used. Political and economic factors are often key, but so too are social factors – how would people interact with a new product and how would it fit into their lives? Good technologies can fail if they do not consider these issues.
- Communication is a vital part of engineering. You need to talk to users of technology or other people who might be affected by it. And you need to communicate with team members and work colleagues – you cannot achieve anything as an engineer if you can’t work effectively in a team.
- Creativity and design is important but if you’re most interested in these aspects of engineering don’t have unrealistic expectations. You’ll still have to go to meetings and write reports, as you would in other jobs – the world of work is often mundane.
Overall, there’s much to be said for building up your general skills and experience even if you are interested in a specific engineering application. When you come to specialise, you’ll have a bigger intellectual and practical toolkit to apply and be able to achieve more. And think about skills development as something you need to do throughout your career, by learning on the job and through more formal training and education.