UW Innovate caught up with Yasmin Ali – energy innovation project manager at BEIS – to reflect on her 11 years in utilities ahead of her appearance at Utility Week’s Adapting for Net Zero Conference 2021.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

My first job as a graduate engineer was with the environment and chemistry team at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal fired power station near Nottingham. I did some work on the station’s water treatment plant and spent some time with the operations shift team.

What work experience or qualifications did you have before moving into the industry?

I completed a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Nottingham. After a three-month summer placement at one of E.ON’s gas-fired power stations, I decided I wanted to work in the energy sector, and got a spot on the company’s graduate scheme.

What is the most significant way that today’s utilities sector differs from the one you first joined?

There was very little discussion about the impact of fossil fuels and coal fired power stations on the environment, and greenhouse gas emissions, when I first started back in 2010. There is a huge change to the narrative against the backdrop of net zero emissions commitments across many countries. It is fantastic to see a bigger focus on the energy transition and sustainability in the industry.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

When faced with challenging problems, my golden rule is to pause, take a step back, and break the problem down into smaller tasks. I find this stops me from feeling overwhelmed and helps me to make incremental progress. It also allows me to delegate work to others in my team, and seek expert input where needed.

What’s the strangest place that working in the utilities sector has taken you?

There are too many to choose from – exploration drilling sites in the desert of Algeria, oil rigs and gas platforms out in the North Sea, inside the giant boiler of a coal fried power station, and Buckingham Palace!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Work with and for good people”, I always keep this in the back of my mind, and try to be one of those “good people”.

Which piece of technology, or app, could you not function without?

I am out and about quite a lot, on site visits in various locations around the UK, and would get absolutely nowhere without the Maps app as I have a very poor sense of direction!

Is there a standout innovation or collaboration project that you’ve worked on during your time in utilities – what made it special?

I have come across lots of fascinating innovation projects through my job with BEIS, but the first innovation project I worked on remains special for me. During my time with E.ON’s oil and gas exploration and production department, I led a study to investigate potential applications of additive manufacturing in oil and gas. I was personally interested in the technology. I got to learn a lot more about it through the project, and it introduced me to the world of energy innovation.

Which issues or opportunities within the industry don’t you feel get enough airtime?

I think there is an issue around public engagement with the sector. Most people do not understand the amount of effort and the number of engineers, technicians, and other professionals who work in the background to make sure everyone has a secure supply of electricity, gas, water. There is an opportunity to engage the public with this, and bring them on board with proposed decarbonisation solutions.

What is the most significant way you think the utilities sector of ten years’ time will differ from the one we see today?

I think, and I hope, that sustainability will be built into the utilities sector, very much like safety is today.

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