There is a growing consensus over the scale of the economic opportunity that renewable energy offers the UK economy – and Scotland in particular.
The Offshore Valuation Group, a coalition of government and industry organisations, estimates that wind and wave power – using only a third of the available resource – could generate electricity equivalent to the current level of North Sea oil and gas production. The group also forecasts renewables could create 145,000 new jobs and make Britain a net exporter of electricity by 2050.
Peter Madigan, of Renewables UK, the industry’s trade body, says: “We have long been saying that the North Sea will become the Saudi Arabia of wind energy …Just as 30 years ago, the North Sea could be our ticket for economic growth.”
Renewables UK states about 5,000 people are employed directly in the UK’s large-scale onshore and offshore wind industries. During the next 11 years, it expects the wind energy industry will need up to 60,000 new recruits.
The Scottish government estimates that renewable energy could create 26,000 jobs in Scotland during the next 10 years and provide up to £15bn ($22bn) of investment opportunities. But these glowing prospects could be threatened by skills and equipment shortages, according to a recent study that was supported by the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group and the East of England Renewable Energy Group, which aim to transfer the UK’s expertise in oil and gas into offshore renewables.
“A substantial workforce is needed in the offshore wind sector to build and maintain the offshore wind farms currently planned or under construction,” says the report.
One problem for the renewables industry is the high level of wages in oil and gas. Hays, the recruitment specialists, recently found the average salary of UK oil and gas workers was £60,000, with more than two-thirds of employers surveyed planning to offer salary increases during the next year.
Tom Hopkinson, a Glasgow-based recruitment expert who specialises in the renewable energy industry, says that as with any industry in its infancy, rapid growth brings skills shortages.
“We have witnessed a surge in demand for operational and senior management roles across the green sector,” he says. “To support the high level of growth, employers must look further afield than sector-specific employment pools, and start bringing people into the industry from other areas, people with relevant transferable skills and abilities.”
But Mr Hopkinson, managing director at Taylor Hopkinson Associates, finds a lot of his clients need people to hit the ground running.
“They generally don’t have time to wait for somebody to get up a learning curve,” he says.
“They also like to buy in the knowledge from other companies in the industry – there’s obviously valuable information and intellectual property they are acquiring.”
But the flipside is that it is putting upward pressure on wages and salaries.
“When I started working in this industry in 2004, a typical operations manager – looking after say two onshore wind farms – could look to earn £35,000 to £40,000. An equivalent person today would be on a basic salary of £55,000 – so that’s a huge increase in salaries for experienced people. People who are heading up large fleets of windfarms – we are talking 300 megawatts and upwards – will be earning £80,000 to £90,000.”
Mr Hopkinson says a whole new industry will arise to maintain and service the growing numbers of installed turbines, onshore and offshore.
“Some companies may just do service and repair, but there’s a higher level where they will retrofit new gearboxes that are old and no longer efficient or do complete upgrades of the whole system,” he says.
“So we are recruiting a business development director for a 150-year-old manufacturing company that wants to provide after-sales service to the wind energy sector.”
Mr Hopkinson believes one answer is to educate people in other industries about the level of wages and opportunities that are available in the renewable sector.
“The growth in wages in this sector has been such that, even if oil and gas people did initially have to take a step backwards, they would very quickly be up to a level in excess of where they are at the moment,” he says.
“The smart people will move now – because those who wait for peak oil are potentially going to miss the boat.
“By the time they think they had better look to doing something else, a lot of the key roles within the renewable sector will be gone.”
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