Electrical Engineering Opens Door to Wide Variety of Renewables Careers

Blog 24 Feb 2023

Jean Lewis is one of Scotland’s foremost experts in grid connection and electrical engineering in the offshore wind sector. In June 2022, she joined up-and-coming offshore wind developer Thistle Wind Partners (TWP) to lead the Energy Export Capacity team. TWP is set to construct two offshore wind farms (floating and fixed-foundation) off the coasts of Orkney (NE2) and Aberdeenshire (E3) with a combined capacity of 2GW (power for an estimated 2.4 million households). 

When the UK renewables industry was first kicking off, I was working on a contract for the London Underground designing and commissioning low-voltage power systems and switchgear. It was the early 2000’s and the work I was doing felt quite traditional, while there was a growing buzz about renewables particularly at that time onshore wind, a challenger sector in every sense – pushing technology and science to its limits and defying the fossil fuel orthodoxy.

I went back to Strathclyde and took a Masters Degree in Renewable Energy Systems. It was a tough decision to go back into education but is one I have never regretted as it opened up an incredibly varied, fast-track career.

My first role after graduating was at Mott McDonald, where I was lucky enough to find an amazing mentor, another female electrical engineer (there were not many!), and a team of real brainiacs who helped me get into very detailed engineering and work on North Sea offshore platforms and systems all over the world. That’s the bit I enjoyed the most – getting out and about, not just stuck behind a desk – and so I decided to move more towards project management than detailed design.

That’s a choice you need to make in engineering, and it depends on your personality type, life circumstances (in terms of travel and being away from home a lot), and how you prefer to work (quietly or with lots of interaction). It is not often appreciated but engineering is a subject that gives you very broad choices.

Career progression beyond engineering

At SSEN, I had the opportunity to work on HVDC transmission systems. I worked on one of the first HVDC VSC in the world.

I worked in a small, niche team but one that was European-funded, so we had a mission to share the knowledge and learnings we gained on the project with the wider European energy community. What is exciting is that each small learning feeds into the bigger, global mission to progress the state of the technology, so we can get renewables online and fossil fuels decommissioned faster.

After that, I moved into AC transmission system projects, where I managed two Scottish regions: at any one time, my team could have 20-30 major projects on the go. Many of them would involve talking to the Scottish Government and people in local communities. You really do need to be able to explain the benefits and answer concerns people have when you’re driving cables through their towns and villages! I would deal with the technical teams and contractors one day, then be calling in people’s houses for cups of tea the next.

I’ve also had the chance to work for smaller consultancies, taking on senior managerial roles and managing customer accounts, which brought in a whole new set of skills. And, now, I am starting everything from scratch at TWP as we take two offshore wind farms from the drawing board to reality over the next ten years.

DEME's Living Stone Cable-Laying Vessel

Image: TWP founder company DEME's Living Stone Vessel is a cable-laying and multi-purpose vessel

Challenges in Offshore Wind

A core challenge in developing a power network for an offshore wind farm is ensuring that the ambitions you have at the design stage will work in reality when you start construction. It sounds obvious, but the teams at the two ends of the process work in quite different ways.

Construction companies work in standardised ways – and that is because they are dealing with enormous sums of money and need to keep costs under control (each of our wind farms will cost billions of pounds to build). While designers want to change things and bring in new innovations and exciting technologies of the future. Designers also need to be flexible, leaving room for change in the designs, feedback from stakeholders is an example.

We will start construction in 2029, so you can imagine the advances in technology that will happen between now and then. The construction will also need to be highly sensitive to habitats both on and offshore. That’s why we do need to have years of site surveying and bring suppliers in now, even though they will not start construction for several years.

We also need skilled workforces ready to start work for us in the coming years. This is why we are so interested in encouraging young people to embark on renewables engineering degrees in Scotland. The future pipeline of exciting and valuable work is there and it will be guaranteed for many decades to come, not just on developing the wind farms, but also on operating and maintaining them beyond that.

Interested in learning more?

You can find out more about Electrical Engineering courses in Scotland (at HNC, HND or degree levels) on the UHI website. 

See TWP's latest vacancies


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