Careers Postgraduate Study

How to get into the Energy business

I am a Senior Energy Advisor for a provincial gas company. Currently, I live in Vancouver and I am writing energy policy for a nearby city but started my career in the UK. What does that mean and how did I get a career in energy?

I am a Senior Energy Advisor for a provincial gas company. Currently, I live in Vancouver and I am writing energy policy for a nearby city but started my career in the UK. What does that mean and how did I get a career in energy?

I am writing the Green House Gas Emissions plan for an ambitious city – a dream job for me. I have been working in the energy industry for about 9 years now and have taken an unconventional route to get to where I am.

I wasn’t sure what to do next after I finished my Bachelors’ degree in International Development. So, I decided to get a Masters in Environmental Law.

I completed my Masters in law in 2008 not knowing what I wanted to do next, but knowing that practicing law wasn’t for me.

I became particularly interested in the environmental law modules, and just as climate change was really entering the global mainstage I dedicated myself to doing something about that.

I started my career in Brighton & Hove working for the Energy & Water team at the City Council. I noticed they were recruiting a manager and cold-called to ask if there were any other roles in the team coming up soon. In the end they created an entry level job for me because I had got my foot in the door. I landed a role managing billing and energy data. To start with I was earning £24,000 per year and was happy with this at an entry level salary.

This was quite a stark change from legal texts to spreadsheets, but I asked for advice as I went, and I got a handle on how to manage big data. I inherited a pile of problems with a very overworked team and I had five managers in a six year period – local government is not for everyone! But in terms of learning the job of energy management it was a fantastic education.

Energy management at its core is about data. Without good data you don’t have anything. Sorting through data, cleaning data for use and then interpreting and presenting it is a big part of the job. If you enjoy data, making graphs and enjoy the complexity of big data this is definitely an appealing job. Presenting the same data in terms of kwh, carbon and costs for different audiences is a great place to start. Gradually you learn to interpret the data yourself and you start to understand anomalies and ask the right questions of why and how to fix those blips. From inaccurate meter reads to faulty equipment, to uncalibrated timers and sensors to inefficient equipment there is always some reason why things aren’t as they should be. The role turns you into a detective quite quickly.

Most people in energy are engineers and there is a certain level of engineering understanding which you will need to pick up along the way. This should not be a barrier to entry if you care about what you are doing as a lot of it is common sense.

The key skill is to be able to take in a lot of information. There are endless stakeholders in energy. From the sustainability people trying to lower carbon footprints, to the staff who are too cold in their offices to the finance people who want a simpler billing system to the directors looking to make cost savings there are a lot a different people to please. It’s important to learn how to consider all these different wants and needs.

I worked with architects, building engineers, design engineers, facility managers, project mangers, technology providers and I spent lots of time with energy suppliers. My desk was quickly covered in business cards. Working with energy in an organisation of any size is a great way to quickly become responsible for large budgets and get a seat at the table in larger operational contexts.

When your organisation is spending millions on energy per year a lot of businesses are interested in getting some slice of that and as a result you build up contacts very quickly. This can easily come in handy later as all large organisations have energy mangers and this role once mastered is very transferable.

After a few years I applied to be a Project Manager on the same Energy & Water team. I was given a budget and managed a major lighting retrofit project, working with different suppliers as part of the tender which was an education to see how different large companies go about the same task in different ways. The project was successful and paid for itself in about three years. After this I managed the tender process for a number of solar panel projects. This was something I found challenging and I also thought it might provide me a route into a renewable energy career.

My experiences managing solar projects had been noticed due to my updated profile on LinkedIn, and a small Brighton based development company approached me. They made me an offer promising that I would be running rooftop projects fulltime. I actually ended up managing ground mounted solar projects. I was happy to get a pay bump to £30,000 in the new role which is about standard for entry level developers.

Solar is a rapidly growing industry globally and the technical principles of solar arrays large or small are identical the world over. This means there is a low bar to entry technically and many enter the industry from being roofers. While the electrical part is not complicated, knowing how to actually get projects developed in different locations is a great challenge. This involves gaining planning permission, negotiating with network operators, land owners, banks, planning officers, navigating environmental hazards, understanding regulations and managing contractors. This is a job which requires business nous and a lot of problem solving ability. The rewards are fantastic – starting with a phone call and ending up years later with a whole crew in a field building something you worked on every detail of is a wonderful feeling. After two years my salary had risen to £40,000.

Moving to Canada in 2017 for personal reasons, I was obviously keen to stay in the industry. After pondering setting up a solar development company in British Columbia I quickly realised that the conditions here were not suited in the same way as the UK and there was less opportunity for development. Not a trained engineer, I was trading on my experience rather than qualifications.

I applied for a policy role and the combination of my experience in public and private sector is what they were looking for. I have only recently started, and I now feel like I am pulling in many strands of my past into what I am doing now. It is a change of pace to go from the proactive, self-starting world of development to writing policy.

However, I feel that overall I can make more of an impact laying the blueprint for a city than I could working on my own. Making a difference was why I got into this industry in the first place and I’m happy to make more of a difference with my policies than I could doing projects, and so far I am pleased to say it has worked out well.

Tips and qualifications:

  • Every major company has a sustainability strategy. Find a company you like, find their energy manager and give them a call. See if you can talk your way in based on your skills and applying them to the company’s energy team. They might not have a place for you but what do you have to lose?
  • You need a brain like a sponge, take in information from as many sides as possible before acting.
  • It is a fast-moving industry with rapid pace of technical innovation. A lot of waste can be avoided by focusing on outcomes – not necessarily on new shiny solutions if they are not appropriate.
  • Solar business cases are best presented in the summer. People are actually more emotional and less rational than they would have themselves believe.
  • Use LinkedIn, make your profile keyword rich and keep it up to date. Let the recruiters find you. There are plenty of roles globally in a vast industry. If you fancy a change of pace, highlight your experience in different areas of the industry and see if you are what someone has been looking for.

A quick note on sustainability. Energy and sustainability are two sides of the same coin but are different. Sustainability is to do with staff behaviour, recycling, campaigns, low carbon travel and sustainable purchasing and materials. Energy is more nuts and bolts, it is about efficiency from boilers, renewable power, energy use intensity things like that.

While there is crossover, energy in many ways is a more secure career path. The leadership of any organisation might decide not to go ahead with a ‘sustainability policy’ because of unclear outcomes and unquantifiable return on investment but they will want the lights on and the building at the right temperature every day so energy professionals are often less dispensable than sustainability professionals.

 

With thanks to Jeremy Dresner for his contribution!

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