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The future of electrical engineering?

Electrical Engineering By Alasdair Bamford, Associate Director, Critical Systems – 14 December 2021

Electric power structure against a blue sky and rising sun


Alasdair smiling and looking at the camera in a brown shirt and black sweater in an office space

Alasdair Bamford

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This is the age of the electrical engineer. The grid is decarbonising. Vehicles are electrifying. Heat pumps are in vogue, at least in the UK. Wind farms are expanding on- and off-shore and batteries are everywhere. This seems like the biggest revolution in electrical engineering generation and distribution and storage in over a century.

This gives us challenges and opportunities.

Electricity is clean but what is the source of the power? We cannot use fossil fuels any more. Batteries are now essential parts of our lives, but where do the minerals they are made of come from? And what do we do with the batteries when they no longer hold a charge?

The challenges are not trivial. Are there enough engineers? Graduates? What about apprentices? Every time there is a weather event, the intensity appears to increase and we find more and more things are affected. Our infrastructure is aging and is expensive to maintain or upgrade. There are already localised capacity issues and an insatiable demand for electrical power at every point of connection will only make this situation worse - think electric vehicle charger points, domestic heat pumps in lieu of gas boilers and the ever-hungry data centre market. Some studies suggest we may need twice as much electrical power generation capacity in the UK by 2050. In-feeds of wind power are likely to not be sited close to the location of demand, so infrastructure will be stretched further.

There is a key difference between instantaneous power demand and total energy consumption. The infrastructure can only provide and deliver a certain maximum demand. If the differences between periods of higher and lower demand could be smoothed out, and the network run consistently at near max power, this would make finite capacity deliver the maximum total energy. That is where storage fits in, to average out the peaks and troughs, or to respond to peak demands. The scale is large - think Dinorwig Power Station – but the combined effect of millions of electric vehicles (basically portable batteries that spend the majority of their lifetimes parked and connected to the grid) could be significant.

Some of our established thinking needs to be challenged. When our electricity grid was centred on fossil fuels, reduction in power demand meant fewer emissions into the atmosphere, and not just carbon dioxide. This makes sense if infrastructure capacity is also limited - why be wasteful? However, if the grid is predominantly renewable-fuelled, lowering demand is not the issue it was.

There are so many other challenges on a wider scale. The developing world has millions, if not billions of people, without access to convenient, clean, reliable, electrical power. The focus shifts to the needs of the people, reducing the need to burn coal or cut down trees. I am encouraged to see micro-grids starting up with local renewable generation used in conjunction with storage (batteries again) for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun isn’t shining, or when the hydro scheme is struggling due to drought. Is small-scale nuclear part of the solution too? It is a tough sell, particularly after Fukushima, but it proven to work 24-7.

There are opportunities everywhere for electrical engineers to make a difference. We are in the most exciting time for our profession – those with particular expertise in power generation and distribution have a huge part to play in our world’s future.