Article: Upcoming trends, future hurdles and skill gaps in energy and renewables

As debate continues to rage in Canberra about the makeup of Australia’s future energy mix, solution providers are forging ahead with the energy transition at an impressive scale and pace. According to the Climate Council, 39.4% of Australia’s energy generation came from renewable sources in the last 12 months, with 30,000 Australian workers directly employed by the clean energy industry.

Ahead of the Women in Energy and Renewables Summit 2024, we spoke with Caroline Beattie, General Manager of Future Energy at APA, Dominic Adams, General Manager of Networks at Energy Networks Australia, and Renee Ingram, General Manager - Emerging Projects at Transgrid to learn about upcoming trends in energy, advice for building momentum, hurdles that could hamper decarbonisation, and the key skills needed for future roles in this sector.

What upcoming trends in energy and renewables are you most excited about?

“It’s hard to pick a favourite child”, says Adams. “While I love working on critical issues like delivering transmission and large-scale generation or making the most of customer energy resources on the grid, I’m most excited about getting frameworks in place to deliver renewable gases to industrial gas users. Most of the policy and public debate has to date focused on gas use in homes, which is important but accounts for around 10 per cent of gas use and less than two per cent of emissions. The penny is starting to drop that we need tangible solutions to decarbonise gas use for industries that cannot affordably electrify. If we can transition these to using biomethane and hydrogen, instead of gas from the ground, they will be able to stay on shore and contribute to the Australian economy well into the future.”

Beattie said the momentum building behind remote grids across our regions, like the Pilbara and Mount Isa, as part of the energy transition is very encouraging. “We know the most efficient and effective way to decarbonise Australia’s energy systems is to remove coal and diesel as quickly as possible, with renewables firmed by domestic gas and storage, like batteries and hydro”, she says. “In our remote grids we’re seeing real momentum in this transition, with the build out of renewables, firmed by gas and batteries. The reason it’s happening is because the market is facilitating and incentivising an orderly and productive transition, providing a good case study for the rest of Australia. This is being driven by the decarbonisation ambitions of mining companies.”

Ingram offered examples of Transgrid’s major projects and her excitement for their potential. “We are progressing a number of major transmission projects to deliver renewable energy to consumers.  EnergyConnect is well underway and we are seeing significant progress on HumeLink and VNI West. Together, these projects will reshape the National Electricity Market and ensure the integration of renewable energy.”

Who are the key roles in an organisation that can help us build momentum for big ideas in energy and renewables?

Beattie points to the importance of a clear strategy, and the right talent to execute on it. “For an organisation to deliver any kind of meaningful change, it needs to have a clearly defined growth strategy and the right people and capabilities to execute it”, she says. “It also needs to build strong relationships with customers, communities and other stakeholders. APA's strategy is to be the partner of choice in delivering infrastructure solutions for Australia's energy transition. We have developed the capabilities we need to be successful in our four chosen asset classes – contracted renewables and firming, electricity transmission, gas transmission, and future energy, including areas like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.”

“It’s not what your title is that counts”, observes Adams. “Everyone can play an important role in building momentum through the energy transition. Some people will be well suited to thinking creatively and challenging the old ways of thinking – whether they are new to the sector (and we need many more of these people) or are just born that way. Others will be better suited to testing new ideas for practicality and workability, playing devil’s advocate, creating a plan, spotting the holes, filling the holes, etcetera. The secret spice is collaboration and good-will; ensuring that all these different people and ways of working have a single ‘north star’ to progress the energy transition in the interests of customers.”

What hurdles could hamper Australia’s energy transition, and what can individuals in the sector do to mitigate these?

“The steeplechase might seem a more appropriate metaphor than a hurdle!” says Adams. “You won’t just fall over in the energy transition; you can fall flat on your face in a puddle. While there are many challenges, perhaps the biggest is in how we bring customers on the journey. The energy transition will not progress smoothly without customers buying into it and understanding that, well… it won’t always go smoothly. Customers already play an important role installing rooftop PV, batteries and flexible loads, and their further engagement will be needed to make the most of these resources for the broader system. Customer support will be needed as tariff structures change and as energy prices go up and down while the energy system adjusts to new ways of operating. It’s up to all of us in the energy sector to be ambassadors for the bigger picture of the energy transition. We all have a role to play to build and maintain social license, particularly when we trip and fall in a puddle.”

Ingram also noted the importance of social license, highlighting that “community wants involvement in projects, and social licence is becoming more important than ever.” Ingram went on to explain that everyone must play a role in the transition. “It is important everyone in the energy industry and government be aware of the changing environment and to work together to provide outcomes for consumers. There is no single entity that is responsible - it falls to all in the energy sector, including regulatory, government and industry stakeholders. Everyone has a role to play - from the largest generator, the transmission companies, distribution companies, retailers down to large and small contractors.”

According to Beattie, some of the biggest challenges facing the industry include unnecessarily onerous approval timelines for new projects, the exclusion of gas generation from the Government’s capacity investment scheme, and additional regulatory impositions “For Australia to realise its ambitious targets, we need less red tape, not more, and we need to encourage investment through a sensible regulatory environment,” she says. “We need to ensure regulations allow for existing assets to be repurposed for the transportation of future fuels to ensure existing easements can continue to be utilised.”

“Our job at APA is to work with governments, communities, regulators, suppliers, and our customers to ensure we can cut through these issues to deliver the infrastructure we need to decarbonise our energy systems.”

Ingram also flagged regulatory changes needed to support the energy transition, explaining that the “removal of regulatory uncertainty will support investor confidence and the progression of network projects of critical infrastructure.”

What skills do you believe ambitious young professionals in the sector should focus on today as they aspire to future leadership roles in energy and renewables?

Beattie recommends young professionals aim to cultivate a diverse background and extensive experience. “Navigating this field demands adeptness in addressing a wide array of challenges and opportunities, underscored by attributes like design thinking, resilience, and patience”, she says. “Collaboration and an open-minded approach are crucial for fostering innovation and becoming a thought leader. Given the complex nature of the energy transition, aspiring leaders should expand their interests beyond the traditional academic backgrounds of engineering or science to include disciplines such as economics, business, policy, stakeholder management and communications. They should possess the ability to delve deeply into specific subjects while also grasping the broader context. By broadening their skillsets, gaining diverse experiences, and deliberately stepping out of their professional comfort zones, they will grow in their careers.”

Adams believes listening and being empathetic to the needs and concerns of others is a highly underrated skill that is essential for leadership. “I spent a good deal of my early career trying to have the best ideas”, he says. “Rather than listening, I’d be waiting till other people stopped talking so I could say something really insightful. The quicker you realise that your superpower as a leader is not in having the best ideas, it’s in listening carefully, feeling for the core motivations of stakeholders, and being able to read the room when lightning strikes and there is a path to navigate forwards. The companion skill set is communicating through all of this in a collaborative setting.”

Ingram was optimistic for the future of young professionals and women in energy and renewables who want to develop these skills and who aspire to future leadership roles. “The future is bright for women in energy and renewables.  There is a lot of opportunity across the board. Whether you have energy experience or not, there is plenty of scope to adapt skillsets to contribute something significant to the industry.”

Hear from Caroline Beattie, Dominic Adams, Renee Ingram and other inspirational industry leaders at Women in Energy and Renewables Summit 2024, 10-12 September in Sydney. Learn more. 

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.