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An overview of the power generation industry

Energy (power generation): industry sector overview

Engineers in the power generation industry aim to develop technology that is low carbon and low cost, and has high reliability.

Power can be generated by a range of technologies, from oil and gas power stations to offshore and onshore wind farms and solar power, as well as the nuclear industry. Large energy companies tend to cover power generation, transmission networks and end users as, if you're generating power, it's more cost effective to sell and distribute to your own customers. In the UK, the major companies are E.ON, EDF Energy, Centrica, npower, Scottish Power and SSE.

The industry revolves around three objectives: low carbon, low cost and high reliability. However, these don't always complement each other; coal power is reliable but ruins CO2 emission targets, while offshore wind is low carbon but isn't as reliable and is quite expensive. Innovative technical solutions are often required and the goal for engineers is to develop a 'silver bullet' that ticks all three boxes.

Trends and developments in the power generation industry

Capital investments in power generation are large so there are lots of international investor-owned companies. There are also some full or partly government-owned companies and, in instances where investment is extremely high (currently offshire wind and nuclear), joint venture companies are set up to share costs and risks. One project hitting the headlines at the minute is the Hinckley Point nuclear power station. We're also beginning to see countries record their first day of zero electricity production from coal.

Students interested in this area should have a basic understanding of all existing and potential electricity production technologies, the pros and cons of each one and the need for a company - or country - to balance its portfolio across these technologies. An understanding of how smart metering, smart grids and energy storage could work together to reduce demand and match supply with demand is also key.

What it's like working in power generation

If you're working with well established technologies and older assets, your work will be well regulated and almost systematic. However, if you're working in a developing area, it can be extremely dynamic as you will need to write the rule book as you go. In most cases one engineer can't possibly know everything required to deliver a project, so you'll always be working in a team to make sure there is the right mixture of skills.

Large capital projects such as wind farms and power stations take many years (even decades) to progress through the consent, funding, planning, design and construction processes, whereas smaller projects, for example building a small solar farm or optimising and developing existing infrastructure, take much less time.

Getting a graduate engineering job in the power generation industry

An engineer going into this industry will need to have an interest in how things work and a knack for being practical and hands-on. You'll need to understand whether things that work on paper can work in the real world. You'll also need to be able to work in or lead a team, be flexible so you can respond at short notice and, because technology is always developing, be willing to constantly learn.

Internships are a good way to gain some experience while you're still at university. Most large companies offer graduate schemes, which typically involve placements within a number of business areas. Once in a full-time position, progression can be swift. There are opportunities to work overseas or experience different business areas, particularly with the large, international energy companies.

The highlights of a career in power generation

  • The extremely broad range of career opportunities.
  • Working with constantly developing technology.
  • The satisfaction of completing challenging projects with teams of professional and committed colleagues.

The power generation industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

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

Thanks to Richard Crowhurst for his help with this article. Richard is a production manager at E.ON Climate & Renewables. He's worked in the industry for 26 years, starting off as a control and instrumentation engineer, and has a BEng from The Open University.