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Insights The answer's blowing in the wind

Offshore wind is vital to meet the UK’s Net Zero 2050 goal and generate cleaner energy, and recently the Government increased the target for offshore wind capacity to 40GW by 2030. Matt Rutherford, Xiaoshuang Tian, and Peter McGrath are three engineers working within our offshore wind team – our renewables ‘Faces of the Future’.
image of Matt, Xiaoshuang and Peter smiling
Why do you think it’s important to work and learn about it? 

Matt: The renewables industry is fundamental for not only the UK but the world’s continued transition from fossil fuel dominance to a Net Zero carbon future. If governments are serious about climate change policies, then we’ll have to see a huge surge in renewable technology in the next 20-30 years. It’s so important because it’s the future. Development as individuals, a business and nation will be a critical advantage a few years down the line when the industry is booming and the supply of engineers with renewable experience is limited.

Xiaoshuang: Climate change is quite critical for my generation and it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect the planet. Offshore wind can definitely generate clean energy. On the other hand, the majority of people working on offshore wind are men; I’d like to encourage more girls to work in wind as engineers. 

What are you finding the most interesting; challenging; rewarding so far?

Xiaoshuang: I’ve been involved in a couple of very challenging projects, including Beatrice Offshore Windfarm – the world’s deepest farm to use jacket foundations; and Triton Knoll - currently deploying the largest turbine at 9.5MW. Some of the designs were novel and pushed the boundaries of recognised design standards, and I’ve enjoyed working with my brilliant colleagues and solving the challenges together. 

Peter: The variety of work is definitely the most rewarding, with technical work covering a range of different components, loading scenarios and methods. This extends beyond technical work as well, with the possibility of getting involved in project management and work bidding, amongst other work streams. All of this has helped to round out my skills and gives me confidence in my future professional growth.

Why is this work important for the industry and UK?

Matt: Continuing to develop the UK renewables industry is critical to reach our climate change targets and international agreements. This means continuing to innovate in sectors where we are currently experienced – notably wind, while looking for opportunities to broaden our energy portfolio and introduce new technologies. The UK is currently seen as a world leader and staying ahead of the curve in the offshore wind market is important as we look to export our knowledge across the world, maintain that image and give our businesses a competitive advantage.

Xiaoshuang: The demand for global electricity is growing and projected to continue as we transition to low carbon forms of energy. The Prime Minister boosted the government’s previous offshore wind target 30GW to 40GW in October. Offshore wind will definitely play an important role in the future electricity market. 

Peter: With climate change becoming increasingly prominent in the public conscious and dramatic reductions in the cost of energy production, offshore wind is cementing itself as an energy source of the future. Beyond this though, it has the possibility to not only provide clean energy, but also sustainably create thousands of future jobs, with the UK uniquely placed as an island nation to take advantage of this.

Do you think people/general public/your peers know enough about Net Zero and climate action challenges?

Matt: Climate change and net zero carbon are very complicated issues. It’s very easy to look at a wind turbine and say: “Isn’t that great, it’s so green” and look at a gas power station and think the opposite. What can be easy to overlook is the lifecycle of power generating systems – the pre- and post-operation environmental costs.

For example, turbine foundations alone can contain in excess of 1000 tonnes of steel. Multiply this across 100 wind turbines and a typical production of 1.8 tonnes CO2 per tonne of steel and you’re looking at 180,000 tonnes of CO2. This is before considering transportation and installation, and without considering environmental, economic and geopolitical impacts of any requirement for rare earth magnets. But undoubtedly, I consider wind technology to be a net positive industry. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking “renewable means good; fossil fuels, nuclear etc. mean bad“. Developments in carbon capture and storage, hydrogen technologies and small modular nuclear reactors are part of our developments for a diverse, carbon neutral energy future. 

Xiaoshuang: I actually think so! We are living a world where social media is everywhere. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook have been used to communicate about and raise awareness of climate change/Net Zero. It’s great to see people all over the world to discuss ideas and share views.  However, the academic papers which demonstrate real solutions are rarely seen by the general public, because they are written in complex technical language. So, these real solutions should be shared on social media in easier language to understand and process. 

Peter: After the constructive climate activism of the last few years, from Greta Thunberg to the Forest Green Rovers project, as a whole I feel the public has had exposure to many of the challenges, alongside a number of the mitigations to take. 

But on an individual level, I think a lot of our nation’s climate education is uneven; a great way to take the next step could be to standardise this as part of formal education, given the wide-ranging consequences Net-Zero will have on all sectors and individuals if we are to truly engage with it. 

What would (or even do) you personally say to younger people interested? 

Matt: The world is changing, and the energy industry is a big part of that change. Working in the industry is an opportunity to shape the future. I would use scientific models to demonstrate projections for the future effects of climate change and highlight that it is their future we are working for. Depending on the location you should try use area specific projections e.g. sea level rise to make the usually very conceptual issue of climate change more real to the listener.

Peter: There are many positive reasons to enter the renewables sector, and not only from the top-level perspective of tackling environmental issues. On a personal level, it’s really dynamic and as a relatively immature sector, I feel there are a number of avenues through which you can develop all kinds of skills and stamp your mark later in your career. Not to mention there’s something very rewarding about seeing your work go to a good cause! 

Xiaoshuang: Please follow your heart and do what you want, whether you’re a girl or boy! Because you don’t need to prove to anyone except for yourself. Your desire to be liked by everyone may hold you back. 

If you were the nation’s leader for the day, what would you implement in order to bolster our industry? 

Matt: While ignoring my complete lack of suitability to lead a nation and not to be too political; I think I would point out that never mind the current situation, a system that fails to protect its future is fundamentally unsustainable. I’d invest in research grants and government sponsorships to fund innovation in the future of energy. Low carbon and renewable energy technologies are new industries with significant opportunity for innovation. Investing early would give the UK the opportunity to push its position to a world leader in these technologies and allow us to export that knowledge at a later date, with long term economic benefits. 

Xiaoshuang: The offshore wind industry was launched in 1992 with the construction of the first offshore wind farm off the coast of Denmark. It is still a fresh industry facing several challenges. I’d like to set up a long-term vision of offshore wind and define the measures to be taken. Developing efficient supply chains and attracting investment are crucial for the offshore wind industry to deliver low-cost projects continuously. 

Peter: It has been extremely positive to see some governmental actions focus on renewable energy in recent years; however, there is of course still a great deal more that can be done. Taking a leaf out of the Nuclear industry book, I’d be interested to see how national governments could encourage more access to markets abroad. Not only would this help further diversify and strengthen the UK’s offshore wind industry, but also boost industry collaboration and innovation. 

There’s so much more that can be done in terms of diversity in the workforce; encouraging the STEM industry to take on people from all backgrounds can only benefit us, and ensure we offer the very best to all the sectors we work in and society as a whole.

What are key actions do we need to do to put Net Zero into people’s minds? 

Matt: I’ve always found that repetition is the best way to ingrain something into my memory. Bringing up Net Zero whenever possible is the best way to remind people of where we are currently and where we need to be. It’s important to regularly assess and critique the government’s policies on carbon neutrality and make it clear where they are not meeting their targets. We also cannot allow current geopolitical events, such as Brexit, Covid or whatever comes next to make us forget about our environmental targets - we are on the clock. 

Xiaoshuang: Scientific research on Net Zero should be shared not just on professional journals but also on social media - so the public can learn about professional solutions for climate change. 

How do you feel about being a part of future-focused sector?

Matt: It feels really good - my philosophy since choosing my degree course and university was that I wanted to do something real and something that mattered. Working to build towards a carbon-neutral future is a very important and very rewarding goal. It gives me motivation.

Xiaoshuang: I’m proud of my work and will keep working hard on it. This job requires me keep learning and developing. I’m limited, but I can push back the borders of my limitations. 

Was there a definitive moment that steered you towards an engineering career? 

Xiaoshuang: None of my peers or family had studied engineering, so I was the first one. When I was 18, I had to decide on what to study, but I had no idea at all, so I printed out a list. I loved maths and physics, so I decided to go for engineering. 

Who has inspired you?

Xiaoshuang: Huiyin Lin was the first female architect in China. She was involved in a lot of fabulous designs and made a lot of efforts to protect Chinse ancient architecture during World War II. She intended to study architecture at University of Pennsylvania in 1920th. However, the architecture programme did not admit women because “architectural students had to work on their drafting at all hours of the night, and the unchaperoned presence of women would be improper.” She kept fighting and finally became a successful architect. People like her have made it much easier for females to study engineering, physics, and architecture nowadays.