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Energy union: UK electricity grid upgrade will fail on skills shortage

Prospect’s latest workforce survey paints a picture of overwork, underpay, and chronic under-resourcing across the sector.

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The UK’s leading energy union represents more than 23,000 individual employees working for 8,000 companies involved in the electricity network. 

According to feedback from respondents, 82% of workers believe staffing levels are now too low in their workplace. 69% report tangible skills shortages and gaps in their organisation, with lack of experienced engineers a particular concern. 

Further to this, almost two-thirds (63%) had current vacancies within their team, and three quarters (74%) would described their workload as ‘heavy’ or ‘extremely heavy’, and the biggest factor contributing to low morale. ‘Dire shortages’, ‘chronic understaffing’, and ‘woefully under resourced’ were  terms used to describe the situation. 

The results paint a dire picture of how strained Britain’s electricity sector now is, at a time when pressure is mounting to speed up net zero transition. This backs up the Government-commissioned Winser Report, published last year, which concluded that skills shortages were becoming a huge constraint on net zero delivery. 

This week, National Grid ESO published its report, Beyond 2030, outlining a £58billion investment plan to secure the future of Britain’s energy system. This includes connecting 21GW of offshore wind currently in development in Scotland, bringing total capacity for offshore to 86GW, more than the sum total of all offshore wind currently operating globally. 

The proposals set a date of 2035 for full decarbonisation of the grid, and to reach that point 20,000 jobs could be created annually, with 90% of benefits impacting areas outside London and the South East – contributing to the levelling up agenda. However, ‘swift and coordinated action’ is needed to achieve this, including the expansion of offshore grid infrastructure with a new North to South electrical spine.  

‘Great Britain’s electricity system is the backbone of our economy and must be fit for our future. ESO’s Beyond 2030 network design outlines recommendations on the investment needed and how and where to coordinate the build of this new critical national infrastructure,’said Fintan Slye, Executive Director of ESO.

‘To deliver the clean, secure, decarbonised system set out by Government and Devolved Governments we must take swift, coordinated and lasting action working collaboratively across all parts of the energy sector, government, the regulator and within our communities,’ they continued.

Earlier this week, Environment Journal reported on a report by the Lords Science & Technology Committee, identifying the need to rapidly roll out long-term electricity storage. Without this, it will be impossible to rely on renewable sources due to fluctuations in conditions needed to produce power. For example, a drop in wind strength. 

In July 2023, the Local Government Association issued a warning that huge delays to national grid connection for major net zero projects meant the country was risking missing its environmental targets. In some regions wait times are running clean into the 2030s, largely brought about by workforce and resource shortages. Meanwhile, in December a survey of global industry professionals found that increasing access and availability of training for net zero skills was considered the priority in 90% of companies

‘Upgrading the UK’s electricity networks must be a national priority. However, the much-needed infrastructure rollout described in this report will not happen without a skilled workforce to plan, build, operate and maintain it,’ said Sue Ferns, Senior Deputy General Secretary of Prospect.

‘For several years we have been warning about a growing crisis of understaffing, overwork and widespread skills shortages in our electricity networks. This is becoming a barrier to the UK’s net zero and energy security goals,’ she continued. ‘The government must work with Ofgem, network companies and the system operator itself to urgently address these issues and invest in the workforce who will deliver the grid upgrade.’

More on energy: 

BP boss nets £9.45m in two years, Exxon deflects climate blame

Time running out for UK electricity storage investment

UK’s biggest Women In Cooling event set for Birmingham

Image: Israel Palacio

 

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