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Insights Engineering better public understanding of net zero power

Sarah, Market Director, Net Zero Energy, Bristol

As the Market Director for our Net Zero Energy business, Sarah is responsible for assessing AtkinsRéalis’ strengths and capabilities and ultimately identifying where we can make the biggest difference in the energy transition.

“With so many opportunities available in the net zero energy market, I have to make decisions about what we should bid for, and how our strategy should develop within those areas. We currently cover five sectors: hydrogen; decarbonisation of industry; decarbonisation of power; transmission and distribution; and energy storage.”

While her team takes on most bids, Sarah still oversees the more strategic, high-profile projects and ensures AtkinsRéalis’ strategy is aligned with government, especially the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), whose task it is to achieve net zero by 2050.

“Our bids could be for engineering and construction, or they could be for front-end design. Some bids are for early-stage work because the UK government are still at concept stage, particularly on carbon capture and storage. We’ve recently delivered work for DESNZ to provide the roadmap for decarbonizing 15 industrial companies in the UK, and we are supporting National Grid with their Great Grid Upgrade project pipeline.

As well as reviewing government funding and policy, Sarah also spends a lot of her time educating the public through LinkedIn and regular webinars on the need for different energy sources to see us through the energy transition.

“We can’t just switch off hydrocarbons, gas, and coal overnight – we’ve become reliant on them. I recently did a webinar with the government and Greenpeace talking about our addiction to hydrocarbons and how nuclear is a key part of our transition, alongside renewable energy.”

The difficulty with the energy transition all comes down to the ‘energy trilemma’: the need to balance the cost, security, and carbon emissions of our energy supply.

“Keeping those three things in balance is really difficult. Our energy storage team focuses on solutions to balance consumer demand with an increasing percentage of intermittent renewables on the grid. With offshore wind becoming a key part of the energy mix in the UK and US solving the long duration storage challenge becomes increasingly important.”

This is where AtkinsRéalis’ pragmatic systems approach to the transition comes in. To match demand and supply, Sarah believes that nuclear power can be used to provide a reliable baseload as part of a renewable-centric net zero energy system.

“We need to continue to supply clean energy, and we also need to match the huge increasing demand for electric vehicles and electric heat pumps, for example. Nuclear power can help us to meet that demand, and AtkinsRéalis are already working on Hinkley Point C, the biggest engineering construction project in Europe, where two pressurised water reactors (PWRs) are being built that will provide low-carbon electricity for around six million homes.”

To reach net zero, we also need a strong pipeline of future engineers. That's why as well as advising government, Sarah runs STEM outreach with local schools to teach them about their role in the energy transition.

“I work with schools as a STEM ambassador to make sure the next generation understand the importance of net zero, and to build a pipeline of future engineers. Educating children and their parents is equally as important as educating the government – you’ve got to influence public opinion if you want to see a behavioural shift.”

Thanks to all her work educating her colleagues and the public, and her popular opinion piece, ‘Why we can’t achieve net zero without diversity’ (November 2020), Sarah has also been awarded the Nuclear President’s award for Collaboration.

“It was fantastic to be recognised for the work I do: collaborating with our colleagues in the US and Canada to share our strategic approach; creating and running the Net Zero Superheroes competition for schools; and publishing my paper on the importance of diversity to the energy sector’s success. In my mind, everything is linked – we can’t reach net zero without a pipeline of high-quality engineers, and they won’t become engineers if they’re not inspired to make a difference.”

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