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Renewables: a source of growth for engineering employment opportunities?

27/05/2016

As the global renewables sector continues to grow, Carla Rodriguez of Fircroft’s Houston, Texas office speaks to Michael Borrel of the Energy Industries Council, to see what the future holds for employment opportunities within the renewables industry.

As the phrases “clean energy” and “going green” ride their tide as trending buzzwords, the renewable energy industry has begun to dust off its label of the underdog, leaving spectators and job hopefuls intrigued as to what it really has to offer. Last May, the International Energy Agency (IRENAreleased a report stating 7.7 million people worldwide were employed in renewable energy; an 18 percent increase from the previous year. In 2015 alone, at the highest rate ever recorded from more than 200 countries and territories, the capacity of renewable power being generated grew 8.3 percent, with most of the growth coming from installations of wind and solar energy in developing countries.

Examining its history, the industry has had to jump many hurdles to achieve what it has and prove its reputability. To get an understanding of where the industry is headed, we spoke with Michael Borrel, Regional Analyst at the Energy Industries Council (EIC), the leading trade association for UK-registered companies working in the global energy industries. The EIC’s role is to help its members identify and maximize commercial opportunities worldwide.


How is the renewable industry changing and growing?
“For some time now, the renewable industry has been reliant on government assistance to help make new-build projects more economically viable. The industry has been relying on tax credits, which are the production tax credit (PTC), and the investment tax credit (ITC). The PTC supports wind and some other renewable energy technologies, and the ITC supports solar; these are basically tax incentives that companies receive to construct renewable new-build projects. These have been extended in small increments over the years – two years here and two years there – and provides great incentives for companies to build. The tax credits were scheduled to expire but at the end of last year, the government extended both tax credits for five years. It was kind of a give and take: they are going to extend these tax credits for the renewable industry if they lift the ban on oil and gas exportation. So, it’s great for both industries actually. With the five year extension of the tax credits, the industry is, and has already been, booming and I see this momentum continuing for years to come. Right now the opportunities are better than ever. Now is the time to get into the renewable industry.”


Are solar and wind the only industries to focus on in terms of the renewable energy sector?
“The solar industry is expected to increase by 116% over the next year, and our project tracking database, EICDataStream reflects that. In North America alone, we are currently tracking over 200 solar projects from 50MW and up and over 1,000 renewable energy projects – numbers that will continue to rise. Renewable energy outpaced all other fossil fuel editions for the second year in a row, as of the end of 2015. Opportunity wise, I would say wind is at the top because with solar, that 116% number also coincides with residential; so that’s residential, industrial and commercial solar. Also, the opportunities surrounding solar for contractors is rather limited, as it’s somewhat of a specific industry. However, wind presents a significant amount of opportunity, particularly in terms of offshore. I also want to mention wave and tidal. The wave and tidal industry is slowly coming on, primarily in Canada. It’s somewhat of a new technology but one that more companies are starting to consider.”


Considering the perspective of a contractor, what advice would you give to someone considering the renewable energy sector as a career option?
“Consider offshore wind if you’re coming from oil and gas. The main thing here is that European countries are currently being sought after by operators and developers because the US doesn’t have a readily available supply chain to meet the demands of this particular sector right now. So, companies such as Deepwater Wind, Dominion, they are looking elsewhere – to the UK, to the European companies, contractors, and suppliers. We’re seeing a lot of companies being contracted here such as Alstom, which is based in France, for wind turbines, Fred Olsen Windcarrier from Norway for their installation vessel, Germany’s EEW Group doing foundation fabrication, and Denmark’s LM Windpower manufacturing the wind turbine blades. One of the main support services that we provide here in the EIC Houston office is connecting our members with the primary North American contacts for projects such as these, in turn giving our members a competitive edge over the rest of the field. Some of the minor works such as civil engineering, diving, cable lay/installation and things like that, are staying in the States. However, the larger contracts for US offshore wind farms are being awarded over in Europe. So, there are lots of opportunities, and these are in reach for the oil and gas companies prepared to diversify. I think the main thing here - if you’re looking to move into the offshore wind industry – is that you need to try to get in early. There are lots of opportunities for oil and gas companies to diversify and by synergizing your efforts across the hydrocarbon and wind sectors you can increase cost efficiencies and profitability. This is just the beginning of an industry that can potentially have a major impact on America’s future electrical generation, and if you or your company can become a preferred contractor or supplier, the opportunities could be endless.

The regulatory process for offshore wind projects in the US is cumbersome right now to say the least, so that would need to be shaved down a bit. We’re constantly monitoring these projects in EICDataStream, from the planning and regulatory stages all the way up to completion and operations and maintenance, so if our members need a briefing regarding the processes associated with the regulations, etc., that is something we can provide to them. This is important because if you can overcome these regulatory hurdles and become a preferred contractor, again, there will be an abundance of opportunities because there have been a lot of leases awarded all over the Atlantic coast and they’re beginning to look into the Pacific and Hawaii as well.

Some ways you can diversify from oil and gas to wind are through design and engineering work, support structure installation, cable lay, foundation work, offshore substations, and operations and maintenance. Some of the shallow water turbines are supported by steel jacket structures, which are also used in shallow water offshore oil and gas. There are also geological surveys, diving, and much more, so there is huge potential to diversify.”

Most recently, a report assembled by IRENA details “the first quantification of the macroeconomic impact” of increasing the global share of renewables in the energy production. According to this analysis, by doubling the global share of renewable energy and achieving a 36 per cent share by 2030, this could increase global gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 1.1 per cent (equating to roughly 1.3 trillion USD,) improve welfare by up to 3.7 per cent and could support over 24 million jobs in the sector. After the world gathered in Paris last December to enact the formidable task of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, some countries are leading the way for this theory to become all the more likely.

To name a few, as of January 2016, Iceland obtains essentially all electricity from renewable sources, 72.3 percent from hydro-electricity and 26.7 percent from geothermal, wind and solar energy, and Norway successfully follows suit with 96.7 percent in hydro-electricity and 1.6 percent in geothermal, wind and solar energy. On the other side of the spectrum and onto a densely populated country, China’s State Grid Corp. outlined the $50 trillion plan this month to construct long-range transmission lines to create a world grid that heavily incorporates wind and solar energy from the Arctic and the Equator regions, respectively.

The Wall Street Journal explains, “In the near term, the focus will be on long-range interconnection domestically and on developing battery and other technology needed for better transmission of renewable power resources. Then, over subsequent decades, China’s grid would be connected with others, starting with northeast Asian neighbors like Mongolia and South Korea. Construction of the huge solar power bases and Arctic wind farms, as well as long-range power lines to demand centers, would follow.” Moreover, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced a plan of expanding installed solar capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022.

There’s no question renewable energy will be thrown more hurdles to solidify their stance. But, with every region in the world reorganizing their energy portfolio one way or another, it will be interesting to see how it will come about. As it stands, spectators will continue to spectate, job hopefuls might gain a bit more hope, and the movers and shakers of the renewable energy industry will continue to strive to paint the world green.

If you’re interested in jobs in the power & energy sectors, talk to Fircroft and open up a world of opportunity at fircroft.com/power-and-energy-jobs

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