When we think about the decarbonisation sector, it is clear that the East of England is leading the country.
Whether it’s the huge amount of offshore wind generation in the North Sea and its associated support industries (The East is home to 52% of the UK’s total offshore wind generation – eeegr.com/sectors/offshore-wind), or the significant growth in solar farms (theguardian.com/business/2021/jun/28/solar-farm-proposals-for-east-of-england-more-than-double), if you’re based in our region, the opportunities to succeed in this sector are plentiful and growing every year.
However, we need to not just generate clean electricity, we also need to power vehicles with it too. Vehicles are the greatest contributor to air pollution in the UK (uk-air.defra.gov.uk/air-pollution/causes), so the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is both essential and inevitable. Here in the East, we have almost doubled our rate of EV adoption between 2020 and 2021. But how can we best support this electric vehicle revolution, what are the challenges, and how can we capitalise on the opportunities?
There have been some great examples of forward-thinking action by local government and business, perhaps one of the most obvious is Gridserve’s ‘Electric Forecourt’ in Braintree, Essex, which is the UK’s first fully-electric service station. This vision of the future has 36 spaces for electric cars to charge (in as little as 20 minutes for some cars), along with an airport style lounge, co-working spaces, coffee shop, supermarket and even a post office. Gridserve’s second electric forecourt (which will be the third of its type in the UK) is shortly to open near Norwich, further showing how the region is a key mover in our Greentech revolution. In addition to this, we are home to electric truck manufacturer Tevva, and are conducting cutting edge research into decarbonisation and Greentech at our Universities, for instance the Global Sustainability Institute in Cambridge and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.
The challenges in moving away from fossil fuel usage and into renewables also presents some significant barriers for our businesses and education providers. Here at Anglia Ruskin University we are working on a project to support SMEs in their shift to this new green way of working. From the data we already have, it is clear that one of the problems is providing the skills needed to enable staff to work on this new tech. One of our partners in this project is Artisan Electrics, a Cambridge-based electrical contractor. Jordan Farley, the Managing Director of Artisan, wanted to work with ARU after discovering there were no training places (within a reasonable timeframe) for his apprentice electricians anywhere in Cambridgeshire. His firm’s work involves a substantial number of installations of electric car charging points for homes and businesses in the area, and business is booming. However, without the staff with the skills to install the points (and other Greentech such as solar panel installation), we cannot drive forward the change, and the lost opportunities here are measured not only in revenue, but also carbon emissions. It is clear we need to invest in people, as much as we do the technology.
It is not just the power to ‘fill-up’ EVs we need to enable, it is the knowledge and skills around fixing and servicing them too. Darling of the EV industry Tesla have pushed well into our region from their initial London focus – a service centre in Chelmsford, along with sales centre in Cambridge and another location to open in Norfolk, join a plethora of ultra-fast Supercharger locations opened by the firm in the region in the last two years.
Within the more established automotive service providers, from small local garages, to the more visible large dealerships you find in out of town retail areas, we are seeing a distinct shortage of skilled staff to work on the cars too. The Institute for the Motor Industry (IMI) is predicting that there will be a shortfall of 35,700 technicians by 2030 to service electric cars. IMI’s analysis of salary data for 2020 also shows an earning premium of more than 10% – £3,700 per annum – for EV qualified vehicle technicians. If you are thinking of a career as a vehicle technician, it would surely seem very attractive to get those EV skills right now. However, again, like with the electricians needed, training an EV technician is also proving challenging as education providers simultaneously need to bring their equipment and curriculum up to date.
When faced with sector-wide challenges such as these, businesses often look to local and national government for policy and support programmes. So what are government doing to help out? It is clear that we can see signs they are getting serious about supporting the low-carbon economy, and we have seen some shifts in areas like grants to install domestic EV chargers which are disappearing for owner occupiers. What the government would be wise to do here is to funnel these funds into support for businesses and education providers to help train the next generation of Greentech workers. Innovation support grants are an area that again, government are focussing on Greentech and decarbonisation, less perhaps to close the skills gap, but certainly by getting businesses to focus in this area, they will to a certain extent be forced to upskill to remain competitive and deliver new products and services.
So maybe, the final word on how we continue as businesses in our region to embrace and accelerate the transition to a new, low-carbon way of working is to think about what we can do to help and be competitive?
Firstly, do look at the help that Universities can provide in the region – there is funding for decarbonisation, and practical help that can be given to businesses, especially SMEs, and this comes in a number of forms – the websites of all the regional Universities have details on them. Industry bodies as well are offering help to businesses, and the IMI mentioned earlier have a campaign running around skills shortages in automotive, so if you’re in this sector, it is worth looking them up. Perhaps the most important thing is to embrace this change – the recent COP26 summit showed us that governments around the world realise that a decarbonisation agenda is the only way we can protect our planet. Whilst there is a lack of skills training available, a lack of understanding, and support for this transition could put us back years and is harder to fix than providing more training to those who need it.