Skills needed for smart local energy systems

Skills needed for smart local energy systems

By Ruzanna Chitchyan, Computer Science, University of Bristol

Localisation is emerging as a strong trend in today’s world due to a number of diverse factors:

  • Technology: most renewable energy technologies are dependent on the availability of locally distributed renewable sources. For instance, tidal energy can only be harvested shore side, while solar generation can be expected from localities with sufficient sunny weather, etc.
  • Resilient architectures: distributed, decentralised organisations - be it for critical and non-critical infrastructure, businesses, community, etc.- are much more resilient when faced by threats (from floods to disease outbreaks) which are increasing, as evidenced in recent years, with at least some of this change occurring due to changing climate.
  • Health: the continuous threat of spread of covid-19 virus has restricted mobility between all localities at some point and is likely to be expected to continue, in the medium term, as local outbreaks occur and need to be contained.
  • Local governance: local communities are developing a stronger sense of identity and wish to be working locally together to address their own challenges.

This ‘localisation’ trend is reflected in the UK’s recent focus on smart local energy systems (SLES). While distributed and decentralised assets are most resilient to systemic failures, they must be monitored, co-ordinated and interconnected together if they are to act as a single economic and social ecosystem and not just as a set of disjointed assets. Smart technology must underpin the SLES to enable monitoring, access, coordination, control and communication for the SLES to be successful.

Much of the current energy system workforce need some level of reskilling or upskilling to work within future SLES. The skills noted as particularly relevant for SLES by current energy system practitioners are (Zekaria and Chitchyan, 2019; 2020):

Technical Skills - skills required to install, set up, operate, and maintain the hardware and software necessary for the systems operation. Examples include installation and operation of heat pumps, or EV charging stations, maintenance of wind turbines and data analysis for optimisation of distributed generation and consumption.

Soft Skills - skills that are necessary for engaging with stakeholders, such as negotiating, building partnerships, organisational skills, listening and communication, time management.

Project Management Skills - such as carrying out feasibility studies, handling procurement, coordination of multiple stakeholders in a project, risk management.

Financial Skills - obtaining funding for projects, such as accounting, fundraising, financial modelling, putting new business models together.

Legal Skills - navigating the regulatory framework, assessing planning permission, managing contracts, challenging smart energy system policy.

Building and Retrofit Skills - designing carbon neutral dwellings, draft-proofing and laying insulation, installing internal and external wall insulation.

Policy Making Skills - setting out policies with insight into short and long term impact and the possible ramifications on other directly and indirectly related activities within the energy sector. This requires understanding of the current state, processes and trajectories within the energy systems, as well as continuous engagement with the sector.

Skills for the Population at Large - confidence to engage with smart technology for automation, control and optimisation of appliances, understanding of behavioural impact on energy system and the wider ecosystem. The ability to ‘choose’ the best considered behaviour in a given situation, for example who to share data with, allow access to devices to, the ability to engage with energy efficiency measures and benefit from local renewable generation programs and businesses, etc.

Skills and the ability to develop skills are currently unevenly distributed across different localities and regions. The existing regional economic disparities could be exacerbated if this is not addressed through aligning national priorities with a smart locality-focused training and upskilling approach (Mejía-Montero et al. 2020).

Given that the impact of the COVID pandemic will be felt for a long period to come, and that the UK economy must be prepared for potential other future pandemics, attention should be paid to providing training for the workforce to be able to work remotely/from home. This could focus on skills such as digital technology literacy; self-organisation and time management; self-care and mental health; and use of online collaboration tools and techniques.

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