Delivering Net Zero - The Case for Change - Energy & Utility Skills

Delivering Net Zero – The Case for Change

With the spectre of global climate crisis looming large, do we have the skills needed to deliver a new green future in the UK’s energy and utilities industries?

Delivering Net Zero - The Case for Change

Blazing the trail for COP26, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered its most scathing Assessment Report to date, stating that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”

Most people now believe that climate science is sound, and that governments across the globe need to take action to reduce human impact on our environment. The United Nations has been clear about the scale of the task, identifying the need to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions of 25% by 2025, 45% by 2030, and net zero by 2050. These reductions are essential if we are to limit atmospheric warming to 1.5% above pre-industrial temperatures and maintain a safe and habitable human environment.

Time will tell whether COP26 was the catalyst for concerted and coordinated international action, but a growing stream of green policies reflect the UK Government’s commitment to change.

The UK Government has been equally clear about its emissions reduction goals, enshrining in legislation their commitment to reducing emissions by 68% by 2030, and 78% by 2035. The 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, launched in November 2020, paved the way for sustainable economic growth in support of climate change targets.

In just the last couple of months, the UK Government released the eagerly anticipated Heat and Buildings Strategy, as well as the overarching 2050 Net Zero strategy. We still await the crucial electric vehicle infrastructure strategy, but it is still a good time to focus on how we will identify and deliver the skills needed by the workforce to deliver government goals.

The skills imperative

Energy and utility industries are in the vanguard of Net Zero delivery. Organisations handling power, gas, water, waste and recycling – and their supply chains – will underpin a significant proportion of the delivery of the 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. As an industry body, Energy & Utility Skills is a leading partner in the drive to ensure that organisations have the safe, skilled, and sustainable workforce they need to deliver Net Zero goals.

Energy & Utility Skills is working closely with the Government and agencies such as the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to ensure the skills needs of industry are recognised and met. As an organisation that works across the UK, Energy & Utility Skills is also working with industry to secure coherence and confidence in skills policy across the four nations.

As technologies emerge, Energy & Utility Skills is committed to collaborating with industry to identify skills needs and ensure that training is consistent and delivered to an appropriate standard. Our work on heat pumps, hydrogen applications, and electric vehicle charging are at the forefront of Net Zero technologies, illustrating the work that is already underway and the approach we are taking.

Delivering on heat pumps

Heat pumps are electrically driven heat exchangers that can draw heat from the ground, from the air, or from water and concentrate it in a useable heating flow.

In the UK Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Government committed to significantly growing the supply chain for air and ground source heat pumps, supporting a massive growth in installations from 35,000 annually to 600,000 by 2028.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy includes the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, offering £450 million in individual grants of £5,000 to support households to replace conventional high-carbon methane boilers with low-carbon heat pumps.

The Energy Saving Trust calculates the average cost of an air source heat pump at between £7,000 and £13,000, and ground source heat pumps from £14,000 to £19,000.  It remains to be seen how much of a catalyst for market change this £5,000 grant will be, particularly amongst low-income households.

If heat pumps are to be rolled out on the scale suggested by the Government, then much bigger interventions may be needed. If that happens, the demand for a safe, sufficient, and skilled workforce of installers could grow rapidly. Irrespective of the eventual size of the heat pump market, the Government recognises the importance of a skilled workforce, stating that it is:  

‘developing a workforce pipeline with the skills to meet the requirements of Net Zero transition[…] working closely with industry to ensure that installers have up-to-date, high-quality training.’

Energy & Utility Skills is engaged with industry associations and certification bodies, collaborating to ensure that skills competencies are in place and that training is quality assured. For heat pumps, the mechanisms to upskill and reskill the workforce are in place. However, stronger signals and market incentives are likely to be needed to kick start the market and, in turn, to persuade training providers and employees to invest.

Delivering on hydrogen

Heat pumps have a clearly defined role in achieving Net Zero goals, and the technology is now mature enough to support an immediate rollout.  The replacement of natural gas with hydrogen is less technically mature; but it seems certain that this will be required if we are to meet Net Zero targets. That’s clearly the current view of the Government, given that the UK’s Heat and Building Strategy sets out the objective to phase out natural gas boilers from 2035. Replacing natural gas with hydrogen as a heat source is a key aspect of future heating policy.

The Government has given itself and its partners just four years until 2026 to make the strategic, safety, and commercial case for hydrogen as future heating for our homes.

The subsequent roll-out of a mass hydrogen supply for heating will be a major undertaking. This is why work on understanding and delivering the workforce and skills needed is both essential and already well underway.  Energy & Utility Skills is working with industry partners to answer the key questions of how gas engineers can be upskilled to ensure millions of ‘Hydrogen Safe’ installations, and what a Hydrogen Apprenticeship could contain.

Building on a strong record as a gas industry standard setting body with ongoing work on the Gas Network’s Safe Control of Operations, Energy & Utility Skills was a key partner in the Hy4Heat programme of work to determine the skills and standards that will be needed for the hydrogen workforce.

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has appointed a consortium led by Energy & Utility Skills and the Institution of Gas Engineers & Managers (IGEM) to develop domestic and non-domestic hydrogen gas installation standards, competence frameworks, and training specifications.

We are now engaged with all of the gas transmission and distribution networks on the competence and training issues presented by the transition to Net Zero.

Delivering on electric vehicle charge points

The Government’s electric vehicle infrastructure strategy was scheduled for the autumn but is still to emerge. From the Transition to Zero Emissions Cars and Vans 2035 Delivery Plan published in July 2021, we can see the scale of the transition from internal combustion engines.

Overall, the Government is investing £1.3bn to accelerate the rollout of charging infrastructure on motorways, on streets, in homes, and in workplaces, and is supporting the private sector to deliver at least six high powered chargepoints at every motorway service area in England by 2023, while continuing their support for the provision of on-street chargepoints until at least 2024/25. The mandate for new homes to have charge points was announced in November, projecting a further 145,000 installations.

The huge increase in electric vehicle charge point installation will place a significant demand on electrical skills and competencies at a time when there will be increasing competition not just from other low carbon technology installations, but also from a range of other major government infrastructure projects.

Now is the time to consider how that demand might be met. UK Government policy on skills delivery is becoming more flexible through new approaches such as Skills Bootcamps, free Level 3 qualifications, and revised apprenticeship standards. Will these be sufficient to meet the increased demand safely and sustainably?

Energy & Utility Skills is working with industry electrical associations and the Government to determine how to support the electric vehicle installation workforce. It is clear that we need to address an immediate skills need if the Government is to achieve its Net Zero transport targets.  This requires consideration on how to safely widen the skills pool to meet the specific needs of charge point installation by introducing some flexibility into the requirement.