Q&A: qualifying for the energy transition with the University of Aberdeen

Yoana Cholteeva 22 February 2021 (Last Updated February 22nd, 2021 11:29)

The University of Aberdeen has launched the UK's first postgraduate degree in Energy Transition Systems and Technologies. We speak with Professor Russell McKenna, chair in energy transition at the university, about the impact that the course can have on the future generation of engineers.

Q&A: qualifying for the energy transition with the University of Aberdeen
“Students become qualified to face these challenges in their future careers to make a contribution towards the energy transition,” said Russell McKenna. Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the Paris Agreement pressing for more active changes in the global energy industry, educating and welcoming new talent as part of the renewable shift is becoming equally crucial.

For this reason, the University of Aberdeen has created the energy transition Masters programme, drawing on the city’s expertise and reputation as a leading energy hub.

As part of its curriculum, the course, based in the School of Engineering, will see contributions from other schools within the university, including geosciences, business, and law. It will also be laid on the foundations of the well-established research conducted within the university’s existing Centre for Energy Transition. 

Yoana Cholteeva (YC): Could you tell me a bit more about the niche that the new Energy Transition Systems and Technologies course is filling?

Russell McKenna (RM): The course was essentially set up to fill a gap. As Aberdeen is a competence centre and a capital for oil and gas, the recent decades have seen an increase in the importance of non-hydrocarbon-based energy. 

This has been partly aided by technological development, so we’ve seen wind, tidal energy, storage, carbon capture, biofuels, hydrogen, all of these technologies make significant progress. But there are still challenges – technological, commercial, and political challenges for businesses and governments to achieve the energy transition.

For this reason, we wanted to set up a programme that provides education in the context of a year’s Masters course for engineers. It’s really STEM focused, it’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that we’re looking at. So, students become qualified to face these challenges in their future careers to make a contribution towards the energy transition.

YC: Aberdeen has been building itself a reputation of an international energy hub. Is the new course expected to draw and retain more industry talent?

RM: Well, there are two things that we’re expecting with this new programme. One is that as Aberdeen is already well-established as an oil and gas capital of the UK, if not Europe, there’s already a lot of expertise and infrastructure in place in the oil and gas context, as the sector itself is facing its own energy transition. 

That might mean reducing emissions during operation in the longer term. What we do about decommissioning is also important, but essentially all of these skills and expertise are highly transferable between the oil and gas sector and the renewables and energy transition.

Another thing we’re hoping for with this new programme is that we’ll see interest from the oil and gas sector. From employees to engineers from oil and gas looking at upskilling or changing direction to go into renewables.

At the same time, we also hope to recruit new students in Aberdeen, who are excited by this programme, but also by the context where we have a lot going on in the area, hydrogen, offshore, wind, and carbon capture and storage… So, it’s both existing expertise and new expertise that we’re trying to attract to Aberdeen.

“It’s about having this system perspective and understanding how all these technologies fit together in the bigger energy picture,” said Russell McKenna. Credit: The University of Aberdeen

YC: Could you tell me a little bit more about the ‘systems-thinking’ approach to the energy transition that the course is adopting?

RM: From the start when we designed this programme, we intentionally focused at the system level, so it’s not just about the individual technologies like wind turbines or storage.

It’s about having this system perspective and understanding how all these technologies fit together in the bigger energy picture. One example that I like using in my teaching is looking at a building and in this part of the world, particularly in winter, you have higher energy needs for heating and water. 

So, when you’re thinking about making your building more sustainable, you can insulate the roof or replace the windows to make the building more efficient. It also reduces the heating demand. So, this measure in itself, technology of insulation, competes or interacts with what we call a supply-side technology; in this context it is providing heat in a more efficient way with a heat pump, for example, or thermal panels on the roof.

And what we’re trying to educate or communicate in this programme is that system’s thinking is to account for this competition between building demand and supply, and an understanding of how individual measures or technologies have an impact on the systems level.

YC: What do you believe is still left to do to combat the existing decarbonisation challenges and “build back greener” after the Covid-19 pandemic?

RM: There’s a lot happening in terms of progress towards energy transition, but what’s happening is not fast enough. We’ve seen a lot of development in renewables, but in energy when it comes to buildings or products, progress has been slow in the UK and Europe. 

To some extent, I think the Covid-19 pandemic could be a blessing in disguise when it comes to moving in this direction, because it’s drastically changed everybody’s lifestyle. Maybe in the long term we might have some good knock-on effect in terms of how people work and enjoy their time. But this could also have a positive impact on energy systems. 

A lot of experts hope that this will mean less commuting or shorter commuting distances, more working from home, which means less transport. It also means large organisations, especially office-based organisations, won’t need to have such large premises and won’t need to heat these. So potentially there are a lot of savings to observe.

YC: How do you believe the new course will influence the new generation of engineers?

RM: I think, hopefully, it is an exciting subject to study because it’s at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the world. We also have a lot of involvement in the programme from the industry, with guest lectures, and internship opportunities. 

It’s a vibrant opportunity for students to get, but in the longer term it provides excellent job opportunities, because it is about the future to 2050 and beyond. This is where the growth markets are in terms of being employed as an engineer with the system’s thinking skill set. 

And another thing I believe is key, especially when we talk about system thinking, we’re talking about large teams of different experts, teams of engineers who are experts in different areas. Diversity is key amongst those teams. 

And this would hopefully be a way in which the programme can influence the future generation of engineers, as we reflect the diversity of the students going through the programme and going out into the business world.