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U.K. faces a major skills shortage as renewable energy deadline looms

LONDON -- The United Kingdom is facing a crisis that could cripple its efforts to massively boost the amount of electricity it gets from renewable energy sources and cut greenhouse gas emissions -- both within the next decade.

It simply does not have enough engineers, designers, scientists, physicists and mathematicians to do the job, let alone enough skilled technicians to install and connect the machinery.

"It is a very serious problem," said Peter Crossley of the Joule Centre for energy research and development, a partnership of northwestern England universities and energy players. "The reality is we don't have the skills. There are more people doing media studies in the U.K. than all the sciences added together."

Under E.U. rules, the United Kingdom must get 15 percent of its primary energy from renewables by 2020, which translates into getting about 35 to 40 percent of its electricity from those sources -- a sevenfold rise in just 10 years. At the same time, under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the government has a legal obligation to cut the country's carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2020.

Both would be difficult targets to meet even if there were enough skilled people to design, build, install and connect devices ranging from giant wind turbines to rooftop solar panels and smart electricity meters.

"On the assumption that the bulk of renewable energy will come from offshore wind by 2020, the U.K. would have real difficulty hitting that target just from the logistics. Add in the skills shortage, and it becomes a very tall order, indeed," Crossley told E&E. "The U.K. is going to struggle to meet the 2020 targets. It is going to be extremely difficult."

"Most of the companies that I speak to in the energy sector -- and there are a lot -- simply can't find engineers with the right skills," he added.

'Big gap between rhetoric and reality'

The government has set up a National Skills Academy for Power. But in a report in December, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee said it was not nearly enough. "The evidence we have received suggest the skills gap still represents a major barrier to UK success in environmental markets," it said.

Tess Gill of the U.K. government's watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission, told E&E that no government ministry wanted to take the necessary ownership of the issue to guide and direct training, and consequently, little progress was being made.

"It is not hopeless. It isn't that nothing has happened. But it has been far too slow and far too minimal," she said, adding that the vast variations in forecasts of so-called green jobs -- which range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands -- were equally unhelpful because they meant uncertainty about the possible return from any investments in greening the economy.

For Andrew Raingold of the Aldersgate Group, a coalition of business, environmental groups and lawmakers pushing for higher environmental standards, it is not just a question of training new scientists and engineers but of retraining existing ones.

"They have started. But it is very slow. Our competitors started this journey many years ago. We are playing catch-up. But the problem is that there is a big gap between the rhetoric and the reality," he said.

They are not alone in their calculations.

Steve Holliday, head of National Grid, which runs the country's electricity and gas networks, hit the same theme in a recent speech.

"Jobs in the energy industry lie at the heart of modern society. Yet they are still undervalued in our education system," he said. "We have to make engineering and science more attractive. Inventing and creating the future, not mending things, is what science and technology is all about," he added.

U.K. students study arts and finance

For star student Agnes Beviz, 24, who graduated from Manchester University with a first-class honors degree in physics, her classes at school were always smaller than those for arts subjects.

"I like the arts, as well. But I chose physics because I wanted to do something that allowed me to find out about the world around me," she said. "I will probably end up working in the renewables industry. But I am keeping my options open."

The problem starts in schools and dates back several decades to when the government of Margaret Thatcher broke the back of the mining unions and began the wholesale export of the country's heavy manufacturing industry -- most of which can now be found in India and China.

"A major concern is the lack of skills," Maria McCaffery, head of Renewable UK, formerly the British Wind Energy Association. "One in four U.K. secondary schools doesn't have a physics teacher."

That is a statistic that comes as no surprise to prominent U.K. academic and now climate campaigner Lord Anthony Giddens. "Science has been the poor relation in British schools for years, and that translates through to universities," he said.

Arts and money became the hot topics from school through university as the foundation of the national economy was transformed from industry to financial services. "We don't make things anymore, we move money. You have to make things that people want to buy -- and not widgets but things much higher up the value chain," said Crossley. "They have the industry and the skills on the Continent, not in the U.K."

"But if most of the jobs and much of the work is exported, people will complain. That will make the government backpedal and make it even harder to hit our already stretching targets," he added.

While there are multiple sources of renewable energy -- including wind, waves, tidal, solar, hydro and biomass -- the location, size and population density of the United Kingdom and the relative maturity of the wind power industry mean that offshore wind power is where the bulk of the country's push for green power will come from.

'Smart' meters but no trained plumbers or electricians

The government aims to get more than 33 gigawatts from wind power by 2020, of which at least 25 gigawatts will be from offshore wind turbines. (A large nuclear power plant produces a gigawatt of electricity.) Although turbine size is rising steadily, and 3-megawatt machines are expected to be available soon, that still implies up to 10,000 giant windmills built in increasingly deep seas -- including the notoriously ill-tempered North Sea -- over the next 10 years, or an average of 1,000 a year or nearly three a day.

While some of the deepwater skills from the declining North Sea oil and gas industry can cross over to wind quite easily, they will by no means meet all the demand for skilled labor that will emerge, experts say.

And that's not the end of the problem. Once built, the windmills would have to be connected to central platforms and then to the National Grid via a massive sub-sea high-voltage direct-current network with all the associated current converters and switching stations -- all of which has to be designed, manufactured and installed in some very difficult conditions.

The problem is no less marked at the other end of the spectrum, where, as part of its drive to cut national emissions of carbon dioxide, the government is campaigning to cut emissions from households, which account for about a quarter of the overall total.

It has introduced feed-in tariffs to encourage domestic uptake of renewables such as solar photovoltaic panels and rooftop wind turbines. It is also promoting solar thermal panels to produce hot water and cut demand for gas, which is the major power source for household hot water and central heating.

It also intends that every house in the country will be fitted with a smart meter to monitor and reduce demand within a decade.

"It is not just the major offshore wind farms, but the need to cut domestic carbon footprints, as well," said a spokeswoman for the Renewable Energy Association. "If you don't have the plumbers and electricians trained to fit the solar panels and the smart meters, you are falling at the first fence."