Harnessing the forces of nature

Engineers are harnessing nature's power to create renewable energy. We take a look at the engineers working in the fields of wind and solar power.

Vicki Stephenson Green engineering is becoming evermore mainstream, and one of the many sectors focusing on becoming friendlier to the environment is power.

Renewable power is growing in credibility and reliability, and with it are career options offering excitement and variety.

The Engineering and Technology Board's (ETB) [new window] current campaign entitled "Engineers Make it Happen" highlights this, as two of its visiting lecturers work in this field. We caught up with them during their lecture tour to discuss the sector and what its like to work as an engineer in this sector.

Vicki Stephenson works at the Low Carbon Research Institute (LCRI) [new window] at Cardiff University. Her initial attraction to science was light, and when she went to university, she was torn between astrophysics and laser physics, but lasers won out.

Passion for power

After eight years working in the steel industry investigating methods of delaying steel corrosion using electron microscopy and x-ray diffraction techniques, Stephenson made the move into the field of energy. Here she really found her passion, while working towards her PhD.

"I now research how people and buildings can reduce their carbon emissions - either by reducing the energy they use or changing how that energy is produced," she says. "Tackling carbon emissions, improving security of supply and helping those in fuel poverty are the three big issues around energy just now. So the work I do is relevant to everyone and could be beneficial to us all in the long run. Knowing that the work I do is useful really keeps me motivated."

Her most interesting project to date has been developing a solar air heater prototype.

"It was great - it was so big I needed scaffolding to get to bits of it! It was also brilliant because it showed that solar energy could be effective even in a rainy place like Port Talbot," she says.

Solar air heater prototype

"It's basically a skin on the building which uses sunshine to heat the air, which is then fed into the building. It's very important that people have enough good ventilation and good quality air, because if people start getting stuffy, they don't work well and they can feel ill."

"You can't just lock people into air-tight boxes and say 'we're saving energy'. You still need to have people performing well inside the building. My project means you've got that air coming into the building, but you've already used as much as you can of the sunshine to warm it up. So once it's in the building, you're not then heating up cold air with gas or electricity, so you're warm but also saving power, and costs."

"I like to find out new things and I do a lot of that. I could be in the office or on top of scaffolding wiring up thermocouples, so there's a good element of practical work as well as office work," she enthuses.

Fellow engineer Jenny Goodman also found a career with variety, this time within the wind sector. After an aerospace engineering degree and PhD, she ended up working for the military, something she didn't feel comfortable doing. She realised her real interests lied in reducing man's impact on the world, so she made a leap into the renewable sector, taking a job with Vestas Wind Systems.

Working with wind turbines

"When you're talking about wind energy it's pretty exciting. You're talking about 100m high towers, getting up the top of a turbine and seeing the amazing scenery. That's what being a technician for Vestas is all about," Goodman says.

There's also the continual challenges of improving and maintaining systems.

"Rotor diameters are still getting bigger, so that's making more electricity out of a single turbine. If you make something bigger, the engineering challenges just keep growing because we have to stop those blades from hitting our towers, and that comes down to things like computational fluid dynamics etc."

"We've a big focus on maintenance; how do we better maintain, particularly our offshore turbines. We're putting more turbines out in the sea so it's a big deal to go out and service them. You've got to get it right, and bring all you need."

Engineers in the renewable energy sector

In the renewable energy sector, engineers are very important. They are key to improving technology, efficiency and providing low-cost electricity. These are exciting times in an exciting market and a great career option for up and coming engineers.

If you'd like to find out more about starting a career in this sector, why not take advantage of the IET's services?

Come along to a local network event, keep an eye of for sector specific lectures and meetings. You may find a mentor in that field or be awarded a scholarship to help move forward your education: the list is endless.

Join the IET to become part of a network of over 150,000 engineers and technologists across 127 countries. Already a member? Become active, and start making a difference to the world today.