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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

People power for a still-transitioning sector


8 min read

Louise Kingham sitting on stage, talking, between two other panel members Photo: Oliver Dixon Photography/Energy Institute
Louise Kingham FEI, BP Country Manager and former Energy Institute CEO, speaks to panel host Juergen Maier, Managing Director of UK Digital Catapult, at International Energy Week 2024

Photo: Oliver Dixon Photography/Energy Institute

People are the fuel to power a transitioning energy sector and diversity will produce the blend needed to accelerate this change. This was the theme of a few sessions at International Energy Week 2024, reports Nick Cottam.

The energy sector, runs the familiar message, needs to tap into a wider, deeper pool of talent, attracting more new staff and retaining more of them for longer if it is to meet the transition challenge.


In fact, said WWF Global Energy Lead Dean Cooper: ‘It’s not simply about ensuring a single just transition. It’s about multiple transitions depending on your local environment.’


The implied message throughout a session focused on people as energy professionals and as energy consumers was that the sector needed to communicate internally in order to be fit for purpose – and externally to provide existing staff with the support and information they needed. In kicking off the session, John MacArthur, Chair of the International Energy Week Board, reminded his audience that they faced a once-in-a-generation opportunity. ‘We’re going to transform lives in a way that humanity has never done before sustainably,’ was his upbeat scene-setter for the discussions which followed.


A just transition?
Critical in all of this continues to be the need to define what constitutes a just transition and how you get there. How do you help/persuade people to put more insulation into their homes? Where is the next generation of heat pump engineers? How do you give people and indeed communities the means to avoid fuel poverty as part of a low/zero carbon future? ‘We look at the stats and we’re just not moving fast enough,’ noted Energy Institute CEO Nick Wayth as part of a conversation with Amanda Solloway, Minister for Affordability and Skills at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.


The answer, suggested the Minister – aside from the direct incentives that government could or should be offering – was to reach out into education with more mentoring and careers advice. ‘Employers have a part to play in thinking about the culture they create. It’s a fantastic industry but we need an energy sector we can trust.’ More information and better customer service were both factors, said Solloway – as was diversity in creating a workforce to ensure that no one was left behind.


The energy sector needs to tap into a wider, deeper pool of talent, attracting more new staff and retaining more of them for longer if it is to meet the transition challenge.


BP, delegates heard, can now be held up as a shining example of diversity in action. ‘We are building and sustaining the culture we want and we are making [all types of] people feel at home,’ said Louise Kingham, BP’s Senior Vice President for Europe and Head of Country, former Energy Institute CEO and a Board Member for POWERful Women. That meant putting in the extra miles to ensure people felt safe to speak up and air their concerns. It meant better representation for people who might be considered as coming from minority groups and it meant creating safe spaces for groups and individuals who needed them.


As a senior manager, she suggested, there was a responsibility to understand different communities and reach out to them. In such an environment, a company like BP could change, thrive and, perhaps most important of all, retain a diversity of staff.


Coming out for diversity
Former Siemens CEO Professor Jurgen Maier, now Chair of the UK Digital Catapult, moderated what was a lively pre-lunch session on diversity, equity and inclusion. He agreed that diversity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do; it is an absolute business imperative. ‘To get the right skills,’ he said, ‘we should bring in those skills from all different backgrounds.’


Maier’s own story, introduced openly to the audience, was of a gay man who for years had kept his sexuality private in the somewhat macho culture of Siemens. In rising up the ranks and, eventually, opening up about himself as a person, he had felt more honest about the contribution he was making to the company as a gay man. ‘My difference as a gay man was [effectively] what could make a difference in the organisation.’


You could say that the ‘safe space’ in this session of International Energy Week was about taking extra time and trouble to see and understand different perspectives. Louise Kingham reminded the audience that in a company which had been as male-dominated as BP, seven out of 11 of the senior leadership team were now women. What’s more, she added, one of the team was a gay man and one person had been brought up on a council estate. The company was working hard to weed out bias and companies that got this right would thrive.


Conversely, said Matthew Wright, former head of Ørsted in the UK and current POWERful Women Board Member, if you don’t get this right as a manager, then you risk not getting promoted. ‘DEI [diversity, equality and inclusion] needs to be part of your leadership toolkit. You have to set targets and be accountable for them and you have to make yourself vulnerable and accountable as a leader.’ By the same token, modern leaders in the energy sector who make it from a minority might be expected to help others follow suit.


Denis Pinto, Managing Director of Caledonian Flow Systems and the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, has been recognised by the Energy Institute for setting up the first ethnic minority conference for engineers and for promoting inclusivity wherever possible. ‘When I got my first job I was the only one of my kind,’ said the former BP executive who now mentors and encourages young engineers from ethnic and minority backgrounds wherever possible.


30 million clean energy jobs
The upshot ought to be a wider pool of talent which helps both energy suppliers and consumers. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted in is 2023 World Energy Employment report , the sector needs 30 million clean energy jobs by 2030 if it is to stay anywhere close to the much-vaunted target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This in itself will put close to 13 million jobs in fossil fuel-related industries at risk, making attracting talent from outside the sector and young talent into the sector for the first time an absolute priority.


The exciting challenge, speakers agreed, was joining a transformative energy sector which had a job to do for itself and for customers who were being asked to embrace affordable change.


Improving energy security – for example via renewables – to protect customers from future energy shocks was part of this process, said Dame Julia King in a session which looked at energy systems to lower the cost of living. ‘The benefits of transitioning are going to be huge but getting there will need a lot of investment. We’ve got to move away, for example, on being dependent on the price of gas, and the real challenge is how we manage that transition.’


One way, admitted Solloway, was for government to further incentivise the development of offshore wind. The latest North Sea auction produced not a single bid and seemed to take no account of inflation, which requires the UK government to revise its contract for difference (CfD) terms for future developers. The challenge for government is to ensure high capital cost offshore wind ultimately delivers cheaper energy to the user, and as King noted: ‘We can’t just leave it to the markets.’


The energy debt trap
Through better communication to those most in need the sector could play its part in helping to alleviate fuel poverty, but only in tandem with sensible regulation, noted Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). In January 2024 CAB had the largest number of people ever seeking advice because they couldn’t top up pre-payment meters. In 2023, she added, two million people were disconnected and five million fell into energy debt. ‘It’s a deep systemic problem for a whole category of people and we really need to think about these consumers.’


One answer, suggested Professor Charles Hendry, a former UK Energy Minister, was to put the onus on independent advice groups like CAB to provide good information for their users. ‘It’s remarkably difficult for people to find the right information and a recent CAB survey found that this is an issue for three out of five people.’ In areas like energy efficiency and home heating it wasn’t necessarily government’s role either to inform or nudge people to change their behaviour, he said. ‘If you take government out of the equation people might be more inclined to act.’


Energy security comes at a price, admitted Hendry, but this is nothing like the price of insecurity. ‘Winston Churchill noted 100 years ago that security comes from diversity, and the same is true today. Consenting is a massive part of the problem as people don’t see the benefits of new infrastructure, and they need to.’


The upshot in the UK and other parts of the world, noted speakers in the session, is that clean, affordable and accessible energy can lift people out of poverty and help them lead a more comfortable productive life. The sector had a key role in making this happen. ‘Not many sectors have the power of purpose that we have,’ said Charlotte Eaton, Ovo Energy’s Chief People Officer. ‘Think about your engagement strategy,’ she told the audience, ‘and think about how it connects to that purpose.’