SP Energy Networks' Future Networks Manager, Professor James Yu, received an MBE in the New Year's Honours List. We caught up with him to discuss challenges, past, present and future.

Q: What did receiving the MBE mean to you?

A: I am humbled and deeply honoured to be awarded an MBE as part of the 2020 New Year’s honours list. It’s truly been a privilege to live in the UK for the last 20 years, where I essentially spent my youth. I feel I’ve been able to contribute to the community I am now part of, particularly in my work within SP Energy Network for the last eight years, and feel this recognition belongs as much to my colleagues and mentors over the years as it does myself.

This country has become home to my young family and I hope that this award is something they, my wife and two sons, can be proud of. My role requires a significant amount of travel and time away from home, which simply wouldn’t be possible without their support and understanding.

My parents displayed a great deal of faith in me – emptying their pensions and savings to allow me the opportunity to come to this country two decades ago. I’ve always strived to measure up to that trust and hope that this recognition goes some way to vindicating their confidence in me.

I have been very lucky throughout my career to have had encouragement and guidance from various mentors and colleagues, who have all been a part of my journey to get to where I am today. With this in mind, I receive this honour on behalf of those who have empowered me in my career thus far.


Q: What do you believe have been the greatest challenges facing the networks?

A: Everything we do in energy innovation is underpinned by the urgency of the challenge presented to us by climate change. The targets for achieving net zero have focused our minds. We know we always must push ourselves to do more, better and faster, to provide great ‘market-ready’ solutions: ones that can make a material change to our environmental impact now.

These demands mean we need the right people entering the industry: high calibre individuals who share our values and work ethic. Attracting and retaining these people must be a priority.

This is a vocation with impact at both a local and a global scale and unfettered opportunity for personal growth, which I truly believe will chime with a new generation of environmentally conscience, ambitious young people.”


Q: In your opinion, is securing innovation funding becoming increasingly demanding?

A: Innovation funding is a critical and effective means to trigger a whole-system approach benefitting the wider economy. The money is certainly there, but the technological readiness level of some of the solutions that we know will make a real impact but also require significant investment – isn’t always at a level where this is the right funding mechanism.

We rely on our academic, industry partners and the various other funding pots available to us to accelerate these technologies to a place where we can incorporate them into our plans and proposals.


Q: Do you see any new, ‘disruptive’ technology coming around the corner?

A: It’s often expected of professionals working within innovation to be able to predict what the next big thing will be, but in truth we can only predict the future in as much as we can make the future.

We know what our grand challenges are: climate change and the industrial revolution, within these there are opportunities to grasp and there are problems to solve. The drive to mitigate climate change has led to a rapid decarbonisation of energy generation – this fantastic development has led to more decentralised, smaller, less predictable sources of power.

We rise to meet this problem by developing solutions that harness and control these distributed sources, using and building new tools and processes to do so.

In truth there is no magic bullet and there will be a number of disruptive technologies that we need to prepare for. Just as we have addressed the challenges of connecting the fast expansion of renewable generation and the growth in electric vehicles, we now need to address the challenge of the electrification of heat which will be critical in achieving net zero.


Q: You’re well regarded as an academic in the industry – how have you married this with the demand for commercial success and customer satisfaction over the years?

A: One of the great parts of my job is having the opportunity to work with academic colleagues and appreciate their expertise, vision and the commitment they demonstrate. It does not mean we have to agree on everything – the beauty of working together is to have different viewpoints! We have great examples from Strathclyde University, who have successfully commercialised innovation and achieved savings for the customer.

I personally value collaboration with academic colleagues (including the EPSRC), who have supported me in sharing my insights with them when it comes to new proposals.


Q: As a STEM ambassador, are there any developing challenges that you’ve seen globally, facing the society of the future?

A: As technology changes and our operations are modernised in many ways, we now have the challenge of attracting a new skill set to our industry. Digital and data are a big focus across electricity networks, so how do we present our sector as one full of opportunity to those graduates who might normally gravitate towards other industries?

Having said that, we have fantastic hardworking people who have been a part of this industry for many years. In addition to looking at new talent, it’s important we nurture our existing talent. We must be ready to upskill and develop our current workforce to adapt for the changes we are beginning to see as it would be a real shame to lose the riches of experience, practical know-how and the positive cultures of professionalism, dedication and commitment that our business has cultivated over generations.”


Q: Looking to the future, what do you hope can be achieved – personally and in terms of network innovation?

A: As an engineer, it has been my great fortune to work at the forefront of the revolution within our industry and be trusted by the leadership of our company to do things differently and develop the new solutions needed to meet our energy needs.

However, between ourselves and our regulator, our customers and our partners and colleagues, there is no hiding from the challenges we face. Only by truly working together and collaborating meaningfully will we rise together to develop the solutions we need to current challenges like contributing to net zero targets and tackling the climate emergency.

We must ensure we do so in a fair and equitable manner that doesn’t exclude anyone – after all, all talents and voices are needed in this fight.

This article first appeared in Network magazine, which has now been incorporated into Utility Week

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