Renewable energy developer: career case-study

Renewable energy developer

Simon Robertson

What got you interested in physics?
I enjoyed physics at school, especially the technical side of models and machinery. I received good careers advice from my physics teacher and went on to do physics and maths at the University of Glasgow.

What did you study at school and university?
I mainly studied scientific and technical subjects, including maths, physics, chemistry, graphic communication and human biology. I initially applied to do medicine at University, but decided on an MSci in maths and physics. It was a good decision, because I won various prizes and gained a first class degree. Another subject I did at university was astronomy, which was really interesting, but I would have liked to have studied economics as well. I think having a wide range of subjects gives you a more rounded education.

My MSci involved some work experience and I spent a summer at the Fermilab National Accelerator Lab in the United States. Fermilab is one of the top particle accelerator laboratories in the world and I was a member of a small group of international students who spent the summer carrying out small research projects. We carried out a computer based simulation project analysing the performance of the main detector. This experience convinced me that I particularly enjoyed the technical and practical aspects of jobs.

What job do you do now?
I work for npower renewables based in Perth, Scotland. My role is a renewable energy scheme developer focussing on the development of grid connected hydro-electric schemes and more recently marine energy projects.

What does the work involve day to day?
This involves project managing the development of new hydro electric and marine energy schemes. I am involved in all aspects of the hydro scheme development process including site prospecting, feasibility studies, Environmental Impact Assessment and planning/consenting. This has allowed me to develop skills and experience across a breadth of topics including: hydro power technology, hydrological analysis, project economics, the electricity market, environmental issues, planning and consents. More recently I have concentrated more on wave and tidal energy projects. This is really exciting, cutting edge work, involving world class demonstrator projects. One such project is the development of an wave energy project on the Isle of Lewis. I have been involved in working with the local community, the authorities and our industrial partner in gaining planning consent for the project. Every day is different and I like that I get to travel to interesting sites around the UK.

What was your career progression?
Following graduation, I joined Logica CMG in London as a software engineer. This involved developing technical software for clients in both the public and private sectors. During this job, I decided that I would like a job in the environmental field and I managed to find funding to undertake a MPhil in Technology Policy at the Judge Business School in the University of Cambridge. The course considers purely technical topics as well as the implementation issues for technology in the wider socio-economic, regulatory, administrative and environmental contexts. I took classes biased towards energy policy and sustainable development. My Research Placement: was with the Western Isles Alternative and Renewable Energy Partnership on the Isle of Lewis. My Dissertation Title was ‘Renewable Energy in the Western Isles – An Assessment of the Potential Impact of Renewable Energy Developments on the Prevalence of Fuel Poverty’, which is now a very topical subject.

What benefits does the job provide?
There are wide benefits to the work I am doing in that the projects are designed to be at the forefront of tackling climate change. This is a big motivator for me, since it makes the job valuable and worthwhile. I get a great deal of personal satisfaction from this, as well as the buzz and excitement of being involved in an important and expanding industry.

What personal skills or aptitudes do you need for the job?
I need to be able to plan and manage my time extremely well. It is essential to tackle jobs in a logical order and to be able to juggle a number of different items at the same time: such as agreeing what ecological compensation flow to release from a hydro scheme intake whilst not undermining the energy yield of the scheme and ultimately the project economics. I need to be able to deal with a diverse range of people and to understand their point of view and concerns. I also require good technical skills and the ability to communicate potentially complex matters in way which a lay person would understand. Most of all I need a positive outlook and a “can do” attitude.

What has been the highlight of your career?
The main highlight was being able to move career. I knew what area I wanted to work in and came up with a plan to do the Masters as a stepping stone to the job I wanted. It looked impossible at first, but I managed to find a way through. I am convinced that as the backbone to this success my maths and physics degree has served me incredibly well.

Another highlight was meeting the Queen at the opening of the recent official opening of the Scottish Parliament. I also really enjoy meeting with lots of different people like landowners, fishermen, members of the public and politicians. The job also involves travelling to some beautiful places.

How does your physics training help you in that work?
It helps me to work out processes in a rational way. I can break down complex problems into bite sized chunks and am able to solve them easier that way. Physics was a versatile and useful subject to study. It is also very well respected by employers and people who take you seriously. This gives you credibility with others, especially when you are explaining technical aspects of a job. A physics training can help in understanding and engaging with different subjects.

Anything else you would like to add?
I was inspired by the history of physics and what people have achieved. The clarity of thought of historical figures was remarkable. By looking back at progress in physics, it helps to look to the future. Going to lectures outside my degree course helped to broaden my horizons and realise what a pivotal role physics plays in so many areas of life, beyond what is obvious, “There is a positive solution to almost every problem and my physics training has given me a wonderful toolkit to tackle even the hardest of challenges”.

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