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An overview of the power generation industry

Energy (power generation): industry sector overview

Large energy companies tend to cover power generation, transmission networks and end users. If you're generating power, it's more cost effective to sell and distribute to your own customers.

The UK's power is generated by a number of different sources, from oil, gas and nuclear power stations to renewable energy sources, including wind and solar farms. The industry can be split into three areas: power generation, transmission and distribution networks, and metering and sales. Large energy companies tend to operate in all three areas, as it is more cost effective, but smaller companies often only work in one of these areas.

In the UK, the major players are the 'big six' energy suppliers: Centrica, EDF Energy, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE.

Trends and developments in the power generation industry

There are three key priorities in the industry – affordability, security of supply and decarbonisation – but most existing energy sources don't achieve all three. For example, coal power is reliable but it fails to meet CO2 emission targets, while offshore wind is low carbon but isn't as reliable and is quite expensive. The goal for engineers is to develop a solution that meets all three objectives.

There is currently a worldwide focus on nuclear power as current infrastructure comes to the end of its service life and a new generation of assets are being designed and built. Meanwhile, in response to climate change, engineers are contributing to the development of sustainable energy solutions such as wind, hydro, wave, tidal, solar, biomass, combined heat and power, and micro-renewable technologies.

In recent years we have seen a number of countries report their first day of zero electricity production from coal. Britain reported its first coal-free day in April 2017 and in April 2018 it reported a period of three days without generating any electricity from coal.

There is also a focus on how smart metering, smart grids and energy storage could work together to reduce demand and match supply with demand.

What it's like working in power generation

The power generation industry is a challenging commercial and regulatory environment. Circumstances change rapidly and engineers play a key role in managing this change, whether that's implementing short-term solutions quickly and safely or developing long-term solutions for the future.

Projects can last from days to years. Large projects, such as building a new wind farm or power station, take many years to progress through all of the stages, from funding and planning to designing and constructing the project. Small projects, such as building a small solar farm or optimising the existing infrastructure, take much less time.

Engineers typically work in small specialist teams, either in isolation or as part of a larger project group, and it is common to work on a number of projects simultaneously.

There are opportunities to work overseas or travel around the UK and mobility is often a requirement of the job, particularly with a large, international energy company.

Getting a graduate engineering job in the power generation industry

Engineers of almost all disciplines can join this industry. Employers seek graduates who can work in and lead teams; be flexible and respond at short notice; assess risks effectively; and understand whether things that work on paper can work in the real world.

Completing an internship in the industry will help you gain some experience. Most large companies also offer graduate schemes, which often involve placements in a number of business areas.

The highlights of a career in power generation

  • The exposure to a variety of projects and equipment.
  • Opportunities to tailor your role to your personal preferences and interests.
  • The satisfaction of completing challenging projects as part of a team.

The power generation industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • aerospace/aeronautical
  • chemical
  • civil/structural
  • control
  • electrical
  • electronics
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • power systems
  • software
  • telecoms

Always check individual employers' requirements.

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