Why the energy industry can be the levelling up lever

Neil Kirkby, managing director for enterprise, SSE Energy Solutions, says the huge levels of investment flowing into green energy can create highly skilled green jobs across the regions.

Renewable energy is arguably the number one vehicle for growth in the UK over the next few decades and that can only serve to improve the prospects for both people and the planet.

At SSE Energy Solutions a key element of our business strategy is focusing on investing in and working with communities. I want us to both help these communities to decarbonise their energy but also to upskill a local workforce with people from all backgrounds.

We have created several hubs in key cities and regions including Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, the West Midlands, and Teesside.

We all know that a lack of skills in the supply chain is a priority issue and at SSE Energy Solutions we are developing relationships in academia, from primary schools to universities, to open young minds to a career in green energy.

Of course, the greatest benefit would be in giving young people from diverse and challenging backgrounds a job, helping them to support their families and give back to their communities. If at the end of my career I can say we helped a significant number of people to do this then I will consider that a great result.

If we take the plunge and nurture people from disadvantaged backgrounds to join us, then we really are making the energy transition matter to them. Not everyone will succeed, but the reward for the effort put in will be significant and will really contribute to levelling up.

Regional skills for growth

To develop a skilled regional workforce, we need to engage with everyone in that regional ecosystem who has the power to help us.

In Manchester, for example, we’ve opened a new office and we’re working collaboratively with the Green Skills Academy, the Growth Company’s centre for green technologies, and several higher education bodies through the GM Higher collaborative network.

A skills summit is planned for 2024 to be hosted at Manchester Metropolitan University and we’ve taken on new team members, two of whom came to us through our relationship with the Blair Project, a social enterprise that exists to inspire the next generation of tech engineers.

Working positively with local authorities and combined authorities on project delivery is crucial if we are to create the green jobs within the community. Recently we signed a landmark energy collaboration with Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, setting out how we will collaborate on new energy projects across the region.

More broadly, we are recruiting co-ordinators whose job it is to provide the interface between our new recruits and the business. Of course, we will always look to attract top graduates into SSE Energy Solutions but ultimately, I hope to build a business around a workforce that is diverse as it is impactful.

UK still renewables world leader

I sometimes get frustrated about the negativity in this country around the progress we’re making towards net zero.

Yes, there are challenges, such as lengthy planning delays on major infrastructure projects and difficulties in getting innovative projects connected to the grid – connection dates are going out to the mid-2030s. There are solutions, however, and I welcome plans to remove some of the more speculative projects from the queue so viable ones can get to market earlier.

There is also not enough EV charging infrastructure in the UK but, again, we’re tackling that, with plans to build a material number of ultra-rapid EV charging hubs powered by traceable, renewable energy across the UK and Ireland by 2030.

We are also leading on developing heat networks to power whole cities, designing software to intelligently manage battery storage, and working with universities to decarbonise their estates.

The flavour of what we do may change over the next few years amid the ebb and flow of politics but the widespread consensus that we can’t afford to delay any longer will keep us moving forward. Demand side management will need to be balanced with investment in capacity, and I’m also optimistic that the move towards carbon zero will provide a significant boost for digital skills within the UK and Irish markets, with AI playing a big role in supporting this.

SSE will spend over £40 billion in the next decade engineering a just transition, but we need the people to deliver the capacity. That’s why I am encouraging local authorities we work with to include a commitment to social mobility in their tender documents, just as we are including it in ours.

Want to find out more about the technologies underpinning the energy transition? Learn more about SSE Energy Solutions here