Rosie Atkins, a Senior Hydrogen Engineer within the industry team, is guiding the industry through transformative change. Whether it’s power generation or gas and electricity infrastructure, Rosie is motivated by the real human need for keeping homes, hospitals and workplaces powered. Here she explains how education can empower individuals to make changes to their carbon emissions, and why she wants the industry to reuse existing resources to accelerate the transition to a greener future – with hydrogen at centre stage.
What motivated you to become an engineer and why is your work important to you?
The whole reason I wanted to work in energy is because of just how critical it is – everybody needs it. Whether its power generation or gas and electricity infrastructure, being in the energy sector means playing a role in keeping homes, hospitals, workplaces – everything – powered. It’s delivering energy to people, which is important, but it’s also looking to the future and guiding the energy industry through a period of transformative change. So, whether it’s the future ready focus or the day to day business as usual, I enjoy it all because it really matters, and my work is making a difference. It gives me purpose and that's what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Can you describe your role and the outcomes you help to achieve?
Energy is in transition as we look for alternatives to fossil-based fuels. The heating sector is incredibly challenging to decarbonise, with over 80% of homes in the UK currently heated via natural gas. My role is to show that there are other ways to heat our homes. Unlike natural gas, which releases carbon dioxide when it’s burned, hydrogen, when combusted or used in a fuel cell, produces no carbon emissions. That means it has the potential to be a zero-carbon fuel and can be used to decarbonise multiple sectors.
Another big part of my role is to look at and address behaviours. I have worked with a Manchester based organisation, Carbon Literacy, on a course designed to help people to become carbon literate and understand the impact of their choices on emissions. This is currently being rolled out at WSP. I feel that you can either force people to change or you can educate and empower them to make change. I choose the latter. This is also part of my internal role as a Carbon Champion.
One way to tackle the heating problem is by retrofitting our buildings, a process designed to fit new energy efficient systems to buildings that were engineered without them. What are the challenges associated with this?
Energy efficiency upgrades are key to reducing the heating demand for buildings, but further full system changes will be required. The two-most discussed options for decarbonisation of the heating sector are heat pumps and hydrogen boilers with both presenting benefits and challenges; the key challenges are around cost and disruption. For example, retrofitting a heat pump, which uses electricity to transfer heat from the air, water or ground, will likely require house upgrades and good insulation. In addition, reduced heat demand is necessary to ensure that they can work effectively. This means looking at measures such as roof insulation or underfloor heating. For conversion to hydrogen, the wider concern is around the supply of low-carbon hydrogen to homes. When we consider changing our heating systems, be that hydrogen or electrification, a range of factors must be considered over and above the installation, such as the supporting infrastructure and upgrades required.
Our job is to develop a solid understanding of the specific requirements for buildings and locations, and then to prescribe the most appropriate low carbon heating solution, be it an air or ground source heat pump or a hydrogen gas boiler, to ensure that we can future proof installations.
You’re currently challenging the business about reducing unnecessary travel to reduce carbon emissions. Can you tell us more about this?
I mentioned I am a Carbon Champion; my role is to become a spokesperson and representative within my area of the business, helping achieve our corporate objective to achieve net zero in our operations by 2025. I champion the use of the travel hierarchy which prioritises more sustainable and lower carbon methods of travel for business trips. I also proactively lead and monitor progress against carbon reduction targets and raise awareness of our 2025 targets. We’ve also set a bold commitment to halve the carbon footprint of our designs and advice to clients by 2030; as a Carbon Champion I’m playing my part in meeting these ambitious targets.
The travel hierarchy is a focus area; when we do longer distance site and office visits, people often drive or fly. We need to reduce these journeys or choose more sustainable methods. It’s about figuring out which travel choices are valid, and which ones are just out of habit. The impact of the pandemic has pushed us all into a virtual world, yet we have learnt to adapt. It’s confirmed what many of us already knew in that not every meeting needs to be face to face, and there is significant scope to reduce travel and our carbon impact from this. We try to make sure people feel empowered to challenge the status quo and question whether in-person meetings are necessary, whilst also appreciating that face to face interaction has its place.
What goals are you personally working towards or hoping to achieve on the journey to net zero?
I’m personally working towards educating the people around me – my team but also my family and friends outside of work. I’m conscious of my carbon impact already as I don't eat meat, I cycle, and I buy pre-loved clothes and furniture. I want to continue to learn, be curious, and ask questions so I can be more mindful of sustainable choices in everything I do. In the industry, I want to see the acknowledgement that we are going to move away from fossil fuels. I also want to see the industry reuse the resources we have already, and utilise the infrastructure that is already in place, to accelerate the green energy transition and help us to reach net zero by 2050.