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The Melbourne Energy Institute (MEI) has launched a new program for research with industry to reduce emissions and support the clean energy transition, including building the workforce needed to make it happen.
Moving to clean energy requires the development of new technologies and their integration into new and existing systems. Wind power, for example, holds huge potential as a reliable source of clean energy, but for it to be optimally integrated into Australia’s energy market we need better tools to forecast wind.
Rooftop solar is another technology that has been enthusiastically adopted in Australia but requires updates to infrastructure to accommodate two-way flows of energy – flowing from household to grid and back again, where it has traditionally flowed one way from power plant to consumer. This additionally raises questions about how we control and operate an energy system in which consumers are also producers, who expect payment for their contributions to the grid.
Making big changes like these requires new skillsets. Dr Adrian Panow, Director Major Projects at MEI says: “New technology is key in this shift, but you also need people who can convert that technology into a product or service that’s of benefit, and then find a way to integrate that into the systems we already use, or else propose alternatives.”
A successful transition to clean energy, he says, demands new ways of thinking.
“Innovation is so important because traditional thinking is no longer sufficient. The technology has moved, and it has moved very quickly.”
Powering the clean energy workforce
Addressing this is the Zero Emission Energy Laboratory program (ZEE Lab) – an initiative delivered by MEI and supported by $4.7 million through the Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund, matched by cash and in-kind funding from the University of Melbourne and industry.
ZEE Lab connects research and industry to codevelop commercially prospective, clean energy technologies, and supports the greater ecosystem required for those technologies to have impact at scale – including researchers, start-ups, established companies, policymakers and other stakeholders in energy systems. ZEE Lab has also established an internship program to help build the highly skilled workforce needed for a clean energy transition.
The five-year program, which began in 2021 and was launched officially in early 2022, will see 30 talented graduate students, from science, engineering, business and other relevant backgrounds, undertake 12-week paid placements with industry partners in clean energy.
“These companies range from some of the world’s largest energy and transport companies to start-ups and everything in between,” says MEI Director Professor Michael Brear.
“They’re working on new models and technologies that will be central to this shift in generation, distribution, storage, and other areas related to clean energy.”
Thinking outside the box
The ZEE Lab Internship Program gives students an opportunity to gain invaluable practical experience and use their skills in new, and perhaps unexpected, ways.
Says Dr Panow: “It’s about helping students think in different ways, how they might apply their skills to different areas.”
One participant, Masters of Electrical Engineering student, Chelsea Christy, for example, was placed with Energy Power Systems Australia (EPSA), which is developing a new business pipeline for a packaged hybrid energy solution, combining solar, battery, and generator.
Having not known of the company prior, she has not only delivered on the internship project but has been engaged by EPSA directly to undertake further work.
"The internship gave me the chance to apply my academic skills and knowledge to the real world and to try a range of new things within the sector,” she says.
“I have always had an interest in sustainability, and it’s been my goal to work in renewable energy, but now I know how engineering can actually be applied in the transition to clean energy. I have a much better understanding of the industry and what specific areas I want to work in.”
As well as students being exposed to new avenues for their skills, companies developing clean technologies also benefit through the internships from access to a range of study backgrounds. It can encourage them to think in more interdisciplinary ways, outside of traditional constructs that say ‘you must have this skill for this job’, and instead find better ways of achieving an outcome.
“An electrical transmission company, for example, usually employs power engineers,” says Dr Panow.
“That's what they have always needed and still need but their operating environment is increasingly driven by data. How does the company attract employees with high level skills in these new areas? What are the opportunities for the business if they can?”
An environment for new ideas
Having new skills and talent in-house may also trigger companies to investigate new business opportunities. Likewise, participants may see an opportunity for their work in another commercial setting after seeing their skills and knowledge used in different ways.
Whether that’s developing an entirely new product themselves or with colleagues, or developing a product within the industry they are placed in, making the connection between research and industry sets the scene for innovation with impact. Investing in people, connecting different parts of the clean energy puzzle, benefits the entire ecosystem.
“These are the highest-ranking masters and PhD students. So even if their PhD is in non-energy data, say, and we place them in an environment that requires forecasting of solar energy, there’s an opportunity for them to step into the space – even though they didn't consider themselves to be a solar specialist, because they’re inherently clever people, they can adapt and think across disciplines. That’s innovation,” says Dr Panow.
In a fast-moving field, this kind of innovative investment is fundamental for a successful transition to clean energy.
First published on 20 May 2022.
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