We need more engineers for the growing renewable sector

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“We need more engineers for the growing renewable sector,” says the Centre for Alternative Technology after five years of teaching renewable energy.

As the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) celebrates its fifth generation of graduates from their renewable energy masters course, they are warning of a growing skills gap in building the green economy.

In the five years since CAT set up one of the first renewable energy masters courses in the UK, the renewable energy industry has grown massively. Between 2007 and 2010, government figures show that the total capacity of onshore wind power installed in the UK has almost doubled, and there is more than three times as much offshore wind. The amount of solar PV capacity has ballooned from 18MW in 2007 to almost 600MW at then end of 2011. There are already around 8,600 jobs in the wind industry alone, and predictions this could rise to more than 11,600 jobs under government projections.

Arthur Butler, tutor on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment (REBE) course at CAT said:

“There is a growing demand for engineers with the skills to install and maintain the renewable capacity we need to build the green economy that the UK has already signed up to. At CAT most of of the teachers on our popular masters degree programmes still practice as consultants and specialists within the industry meaning they are always up-to-date with developing technologies and practices.

“Current UK and European Union energy policy is committed to increasing the proportion of energy we use from renewable sources; this not only assists to increase energy security and reduce emissions, but also creates investment and job opportunities within the renewable energy sector. From planning, consultancy, manufacturing, engineering, construction, operations and start-up companies there is a wide range of employment prospects within the industry.

“On the course students receive their lectures from leading professionals. There is a strong emphasis on practical skills alongside theoretical work meaning that people complete the course with the skills they need to jump straight into employment.”

Students at CAT’s graduate school of the environment achieve extremely high academic standards as well as very relevant practical skills. 99 students submitted theses for assessment in June, over 70% of them achieved a merit or a distinction. The courses are accredited by the University of East London.

Richard West is a current student on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course. Before taking the course he worked in IT but he is taking the course part time alongside working in the construction industry in a technical role. He said:

“I’ve never had a job that is any way worthwhile until now. I never had a job that I felt made the world any better – this gives me the potential to do that.

“All the people here who are involved in the course have practical experience of actually working with the technologies that they are teaching us about. They are not geeks from universities who have learned about these things and are teaching us from text books. The are actually engineers who live in the real world, who consult on commercial situations and who understand how things change because they work in this world. They also understand all the regulatory changes because they are affected by them every day and they pass it onto us.

“The diversity of students is incredible. They are different ages – everything from recent graduates to retires. We’ve got people with an enormously broad spectrum of world experience and work experience and they all bring something to the table and you can learn something from all of them so just sitting round chatting to them is absolutely fascinating.”

Becca graduated last year and used the course to get back into the engineering industry after a break from the sector. She said:

“I put a CV out on a job site and one of the job agencies came back to me and said ‘how would you feel about doing some more studying – one of the companies is quite interested in you but you have been out of engineering a long time’. And I said ‘Yeah – I’d take their hand off’ and then I thought god, I actually meant that.

“I started work a couple of weeks after I did my first REBE module with a building services firm… since I graduated I’ve moved into the climate change and renewables team. So I’m still doing some buildings energy, using my existing knowledge on that, but I’m getting to do more specific renewable energy and also carbon management programmes. I’ve been involved in BREEAM looking at the more big picture sustainability stuff looking at things from every angle.

“I’ve recommended the course to one of my colleagues and they are now looking at doing it too.

“It gives me a chance to do something that I find fulfilling and meaningful.”

The REBE programme was developed in response to a real need for engineers to be trained theoretically and practically in renewable systems as they relate to the built environment. This is a growth area not only in Europe but through out the world as countries face up to the problems of fossil fuel depletion and climate change. The graduates of this programme are well equipped to meet these challenges.