Digitalisation in the energy sector is about more than smart meters – it must meet the needs of the workforce

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Published date
23 Jan 2018
The world is becoming increasingly connected, technological and digital, in many ways without most of us even realising it.

It’s now commonplace to drive to the shops in a car with built in sat nav and parking sensors; paying for our shopping using an automated self-service till; and for many, even turning up the central heating at home using a smartphone app. Our lives are changing profoundly, on an almost daily basis, and some of the biggest changes and challenged are happening in the energy sector.

The energy sector, with its need for high levels of safety and reliability, adopted digital technology early, in the 1970s. While a great deal of our infrastructure was built far earlier, the systems for identifying and managing energy demand were some of the first to make use of computer technology and the internet. In some respects the energy sector was well-placed to do so – the sector has high resource levels, but the costs of failure and outage – in human and social terms more than economic – are severe.

So energy generation has had to move with and anticipate the times, from solar panels and wind technology, to smart metering. But with these changes come demand for skilled operatives, engineers and planners, and a battle to keep pace with developments. So what are the benefits and challenges facing workers from digitalisation?

Safer ways of working

One particular benefit from new technologies is the ability to use robots to perform tasks that are particularly hazardous. Examples include sending drones to survey transmission lines, so that faults can be identified and risks assessed before a worker attends site.

New sensor equipment is able to identify high voltage cabling buried deep beneath ground, minimising the likelihood of accident strike with services when digging through road surfaces and pavements. Robots are also being used to inspect inside pipelines, so oil and gas leaks can be identified without placing workers in harms’ way.

Environmental benefits

Smarter grids have the potential to significantly improve energy efficiency. Indeed the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that by better integrating renewable energy sources into the energy mix, and matching demand during windy and sunny weather, the EU could reduce emissions by 30 million tonnes per year by 2040.

Blockchain ledger technology may be the key to making electricity trading between local community generators a reality, potentially transforming energy markets but radically changing the employment picture.

Skills

Making all of this happen will require a highly skilled and competent workforce for the long term. Ensuring that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) career paths are attractive and inclusive is critical.

A new generation of field engineers will be needed with expertise in not just gas boilers, but ground heat pumps and connections to local smart electricity grids. And with our reliance on gas unlikely to recede any time soon, GMB believes that there will be a need to adapt existing technologies to accept unconventional gases, particularly hydrogen gas, coalbed methane and shale gas, whether these are extracted domestically or imported.

This needs workers who understand both the technical aspects and the safety risks, and have the ICT skills needed to operate these new digital technologies. It is highly unlikely that the current government’s education or industrial strategies will deliver these skills, and much more needs to be done to incentivise STEM degrees, and to ensure that retraining is provided for the existing workforce.

Collective Bargaining

It’s clear that the nature of work in the energy sector will change. No one can know the degree to which the UK’s energy usage will be affected by technological developments, especially when the political and economic outlook is so uncertain due to Brexit. One thing that is certain is the existential threat to the skilled operatives whose roles will likely be performed by robots in drones in the future – in many cases within the next 10 years.

Workers in the energy sector have achieved some of the strongest terms and conditions of any in the UK labour market, and a critical role for the energy unions will be to ensure that member’ interests and contributions are respected and valued as the process of reskilling, redeployment and ultimately revolution begins in earnest. Only then will the gains of this transformation be realised for those who keep the lights on and power the nation through the challenges to come.

The truth of the matter is that these challenges are already being faced – GMB is negotiating for Smart Meter installers to have a career path into gas or electrical engineering – and the only way to achieve a smart energy sector that works for consumers, employers and the workforce is through the full and continuing involvement of the trade unions.