Engineering an energy system for the future

By David Wright, Chief Electricity Engineer, National Grid

When you ask someone to picture an engineer, they’ll probably imagine a man, in a high vis jacket and a hard hat, fixing a piece of machinery. And it’s true, there are still plenty of male engineers out in the field working to maintain and install vital equipment, but there are also engineers, both men and women, working in offices, in healthcare, robotics, AI and even the beauty industry.

No matter what industry you work in, engineering is all about coming up with innovative solutions to help us do things better. If you’re a creative problem solver who doesn’t like to be beaten by a tricky puzzle, then it’s a great career choice. The Royal Academy of Engineering’s This is Engineering Day on 6 November is the perfect opportunity to showcase the incredible opportunities this career path can open up.

My own career has taken me on board warships, where I worked to design electrical generation and distribution systems. At National Grid I’ve had the chance to live in the US where I managed the electricity transmission network. I’ve also led the gas transmission field force, and teams in the gas and electricity control rooms.

Now, as Director of Electricity Transmission and Chief Electricity Engineer at National Grid, I’m responsible for running the electricity transmission network for England and Wales. It’s down to me and my teams to ensure that the country has a reliable and safe supply of electricity. What makes my job so exciting right now is that Britain is leading the way in the energy transition, becoming the first major economy to pass net zero emissions law in June this year.

Embracing change

The energy mix is changing, with new, renewable sources connecting to the system and, as with any change, this throws up challenges. It requires us to come up with new ways of working to continue to deliver the highest level of network reliability in Europe and meet the demand for cleaner energy. That’s where our commitment to the continuing development of our engineers comes in.

We encourage professional development and support our engineers to become chartered. It takes a lot of time and commitment to gain accreditation, but we value the huge benefits it brings to our business and to our engineers’ careers. To help our engineers achieve chartered status we offer incentives, mentoring and the chance to gain the in-depth expertise necessary to attain this status.

Becoming a chartered engineer shows that you have the skills and capability to achieve great engineering outcomes for the benefit of society. It promotes an outward-looking approach, encouraging all engineers to look beyond business as usual to explore original ideas from the outside world. This is particularly vital as we transition from an energy mix that has been relatively unchanged for decades, towards delivering the transmission network that consumers need and that helps us reach the net-zero ambition at the lowest cost.

New thinking

Another positive aspect of This is Engineering Day is that it is a chance to celebrate the growing diversity in engineering and to reflect on how far we still need to come. At National Grid, I sponsor our Female Engineer of the Year competition. This year our joint winners represented two of the very different career paths engineering can take you on.

Jagruti Pala has a Masters in Electrical Power Systems Engineering and now works as a Generator Connections Portfolio Manager, leading a team that connects new energy sources to the transmission system, while Suzanna Bryant is National Grid’s first female Advanced Commissioning Engineer, working in the field to develop solutions that allow us to deliver cleaner energy to society.

Shaping the future

But this is just the start. In the UK just 12% of professional engineers are female – the lowest proportion in the whole of Europe – and just 9% come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. We need to attract a wider variety of people into engineering, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the best way to bring original, fresh perspectives to the problems we need to solve to deliver on our net zero ambitions.

This is Engineering Day is one way of achieving this, by showing the many different people already working as engineers. Within National Grid we also encourage diversity by offering training and mentoring to upskill people, as well as working with organisations, schools and colleges to attract new, diverse talent into engineering.

Change is critical to meeting tomorrow’s energy challenges. We need clever, creative and determined engineers from all backgrounds to drive that change. Some are already here working on solutions and This is Engineering Day will help to attract the next generation of young engineers to join us and help shape the future of energy.