‘We must engineer the future energy system’: Prof Sir Jim McDonald delivers flagship lecture

Accelerating the energy transition will require ‘collaboration, vision, courage and boldness of purpose’, argued Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng FEI, the recipient of the EI’s prestigious Melchett Award. Instituted in 1930 and given in the name of one of the EI’s past Presidents – the Rt Hon Sir Alfred Mond, later Lord Melchett – the biannual award recognises those who have made a significant contribution for public good to the world of energy. 

Presentation of the award was followed by an inspiring lecture, in which Professor McDonald made one thing clear: While there are great challenges currently facing the energy sector, there are also tremendous opportunities.

Addressing a packed room in Prince Phillip House, the headquarters of the Royal Academy of Engineering, on 10 July, Professor McDonald admitted it can be difficult to tell a coherent story about modern energy, simply because there’s so much happening. However, with some four decades of experience in the industry, there are few people more qualified than Professor McDonald to evaluate the state of the sector.

Following seven years in the utility industry, McDonald joined the University of Strathclyde in 1984, and was appointed Rolls Royce Chair in Electrical Power Systems in 1993. In 2009, he became the University’s Principal and Vice Chancellor. He also co-chairs, with the First Minister, the Scottish Government’s Energy Advisory Board.

He currently holds several senior business appointments at Scottish Power, the Weir Group, UK Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and the UK National Physical Laboratory. In addition, McDonald chairs two of the pan-Scotland university research pools in energy and engineering.

Demand and decarbonisation

Proceedings opened with an introduction by outgoing EI President Malcolm Brinded CBE FREng FEI, who outlined the scope and scale of the task facing modern energy professionals.

‘On the one hand, changing climate threatens not just humankind's long-term way of life, but also our planet's ability to support its hugely rich biodiversity,’ he said. ‘Equally important is that global energy demand continues to grow, the IEA anticipates by more than 25% by 2040, with all the increase coming from emerging economies and the developing world.’

Brinded emphasised that the duel challenges of climate change and access to energy can, and must, be tackled together. Next, Professor McDonald took a detailed look at some of the developing technologies that could help meet this growing demand while decarbonising the energy system. 

While many of these technologies – from hydrogen fuel cells to tidal power generators – are being developed in the UK, McDonald was quick to note that the country’s knowledge must be shared across the world.

‘Sustainable energy is not just for us, as it were, in the industrialised nations,’ he said. ‘There's a real opportunity to work with our colleagues in developing nations to help them accelerate and to provide energy infrastructure.’

Emerging technology

McDonald shared several emerging low-carbon concepts with the audience, thereby illustrating the variety of options that policymakers and industry have for pursuing decarbonisation. Among the ideas he presented were floating and multi-rotor wind turbines, as well as marine and wave energy devices. He also examined the potential for the development of a hydrogen economy in Scotland, where the Orkney Islands are already leading the world in production and use of hydrogen in heating and transport. 

While many of the concepts McDonald presented are still in the early stages of commercialisation and development, his stated goal was not to predict the future of energy, but to illustrate its direction of travel. ‘You need some of those big-picture ideas to drive technologies towards solutions,’ he emphasised.

Crucially, McDonald pointed out that there is a significant role for oil and gas companies in shaping the new energy world: ‘These companies have the investment capability, the ingenuity and, quite frankly, the understanding of the need to be involved in the energy transition,’ he said.

Engineering the future 

There is no shortage of ideas for how the UK – and the world – might move towards a low-carbon energy system. But there is a shortage of people who can bring those ideas to life. McDonald brought his speech to a close by pointing out just how important an expanded and inclusive engineering workforce will be for the future of the energy industry. 

‘None of this will work without talent, innovation, energy, social conscience, excitement and commitment to the future,’ he said. ‘It's critical, absolutely critical, to engineer that future energy system. We have a shortage of over 60,000 engineers. Utilities look at capacity as one of their major risks. And inclusivity and diversity are critical.’

Ultimately, delivering the energy transition is not just a task for the industry, but for society as a whole. 

‘We need international and national leadership, vision and innovation,’ McDonald concluded. ‘And that means politicians, it means business leaders, it means communities, it means all of us.

Prof Sir Jim McDonald’s slide presentation is available at https://strathcloud.sharefile.eu/share/view/se5eb570fb9a4aefb

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