Could the UK’s Skills Shortage Hinder its Net Zero Ambitions?

In response to a surge in wholesale energy costs largely due to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, the UK Government introduced its British Energy Security Strategy last year. One of the central commitments of this plan is to expand the UK’s solar capacity five-fold by 2035, translating to 70GW of power generation. A year on, the Government, on ‘Green Day’, promised to form a joint task force to foster the UK’s solar industry’s growth. The detailed remit for this new task force, however, is yet to be defined.

While increasing solar power generation is praiseworthy, the industry requires clear guidance and structure to meet the 2035 target. A significant hurdle the task force must address is the UK’s skills shortage and ensuring that we have the manpower to turn our solar ambitions into reality. To meet the demand, the sector must rapidly attract young talents. Ofgem research indicates the need for an additional 6,000 new engineers per year. Although the number of engineering graduates is slowly rising, with 5,340 electrical engineering graduates in 2019 alone, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) points out that only around 1,000 of these graduates join the industry each year.

In our haste to train and upscale the necessary workforce, we must not compromise quality for quantity. Currently, no standard accreditation scheme exists for installers, nor is it a legal requirement. The UK is falling short in stimulating the significant investment required in this sector. Between 2021 and 2022, there was a 10% decline in our investment for energy transition, from £24.9bn down to £23.1bn. This decrease led the Labour Party to accuse the Government of “systematically undermining” the solar industry in the UK. The Government’s decision to end the Feed-In Tariff (FiT) subsidy scheme appears to lend credence to this claim.

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The Solar Energy Technologies Office of the US Government has launched initiatives focused on workforce development in solar energy. Their research suggests the necessity to train an estimated 1.5 million workers by 2035 in order to realise the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of a completely decarbonised electricity system. These initiatives are designed to meet the increasing requirements of the clean energy sector and to attract a diverse workforce by providing competitive compensation and benefits.

Germany, the EU’s front-runner in solar installations, has acknowledged the labour shortage in their solar market and is collaborating with German renewable firms to address it. To meet their 2030 target of attaining 80% renewable energy, the German Government is exploring various solutions, from incentivizing immigration to providing 90% subsidies for heat pump specialist training.

Given the current labour shortage, the number of graduates entering the workforce will not suffice. The UK should draw lessons from the US and Germany to build a diverse workforce from other sectors. The industry must also step up to ensure the UK stays competitive in training and upskilling solar installers. Companies need to offer installers the wages they deserve. Moreover, portraying the practical aspects of these roles as appealing is essential in a post-Covid working landscape where flexibility is becoming standard. With our Net Zero targets rapidly approaching and solar energy demand high, the only missing component is a competent workforce to meet it.