FEATURE: Re-energising worker skills in the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy

Alex Eliseev

Opportunities to provide training and learn about heat-pump system design opened up for Ashley Jarvis when he joined Octopus Energy
Opportunities to provide training and learn about heat-pump system design opened up for Ashley Jarvis when he joined Octopus Energy

Fervo Energy is a small company that tells a big story. Based in Houston, Texas, the start-up is delivering next-generation geothermal power. And it’s having quite the year.

It’s doubled in size, recruiting engineers from established fossil-fuel industries (the company says more than 60% of its workforce is from oil and gas). It’s announced a $10m funding injection from Devon Energy, a Fortune 500 company that trades on the New York Stock Exchange. And, in February, it revealed plans to build a carbon-capture facility, combining it with its geothermal wells. 

Fervo Energy is by no means alone. Renewable-energy companies – specialising in geothermal, solar or wind power – are springing up across the globe, attracting engineers from giants such as Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil.

“There are a lot of extremely well-qualified engineers who trained during an era when climate change wasn’t as urgent a problem, or wasn’t talked about as much,” says Fervo’s vice-president of strategy, Sarah Jewett. “We attract a large volume of these fossil-fuel folks, who want to use their powers for good. Our technical roles sometimes receive five or six times the applicants that our non-technical roles do.”   

Jewett is a mechanical engineer, who began her career in oil and gas, working as a field engineer for Schlumberger. She says it’s difficult to quantify the size of the migration. Different renewable-energy companies need different kinds of technical skills. Fervo Energy tends to hire drilling and completions engineers, reservoir engineers and chemical or process engineers. 

“For renewables in general, companies are looking to hire really smart, hard-working problem solvers,” explains Jewett. “And many of those can be found across engineering disciplines.” 

The engineers you’re about to meet have made the move from established industries to what they call “the new frontier”. For some, the move came easily, and every day feels exciting now. Others speak of the uncertainty that comes with taking a career leap of faith, and how they pushed through it.  

Fossil-fuel industries have been shedding jobs. Last year, oil and gas had 700,000 fewer workers than six years earlier (a decline, as the New York Times points out, of more than 20%). Employment in wind energy, meanwhile, grew by almost 20% during the same period. Jobs growth in electric vehicle and hybrid sectors in the US came in at 25% in 2021. In the UK, the number of renewables (or green) jobs is growing four times faster than the overall employment market.  

According to a recent United Nations report, global jobs in renewables have risen sharply to reach 13 million last year. While geothermal still makes up a small slice of the world’s energy mix, Fervo predicts it could be generating a fifth of America’s power by 2050. 

Emma McConville joined Fervo Energy from Exxon Mobil. She’s a geologist who now spends her days working with engineers, designing and drilling wells. McConville says her new role comes with a great deal of responsibility and ownership of the decisions she makes. Working in a small company, she’s had to learn to be in command of many trades. That’s in sharp contrast to the narrow set of skills she would be building in a large, established energy firm. The upside, she says, is that she’s achieved things in her career that would have otherwise taken her a decade to reach.  

“You have to keep an open mind,” says McConville. “It can be a humbling experience. You have to learn new technologies. But we’re borrowing from the amazing things that have been done in oil and gas, applying them to clean energy. So your skills are valuable and transferable.” 

Camden Lang, Fervo Energy

Camden Lang is one of the engineers who created the world’s first horizontal geothermal well. When she talks to her friends, and they ask her what it’s like to work in renewable energy, she tells them it’s a thrill. 

They’d love it, she says, because, not only do you get a chance to do what no one’s done before, but you also play a part in solving the global climate crisis.

“It’s crazy,” Lang explains. “In a world with so many people, with so much that’s already been done, it’s hard to be the first of anything. And we’re doing a lot of firsts. It’s exciting to work with people who share your values.” 

Lang grew up on the east coast of America, in South Carolina. She studied engineering at the prestigious Colorado School of Mines, and set off on a successful career in oil and gas, working for companies such as XTO Energy. 

But early on, she says, a green energy seed had been planted. One of her university courses was humanitarian engineering, a subject that explored the human aspect of technical projects. She’d also done an internship at a company working on geothermal energy, which was relatively unknown at the time. 

Producing geothermal power involves pumping liquid into underground wells and using the earth’s heat to generate steam, and then electricity. It makes up a small percentage of the world’s energy mix, but is growing rapidly (Lang’s company has doubled in size this year alone). 

Camden Lang (left), pictured with colleagues from Fervo Energy, is working on innovative geothermal projects

Camden Lang (left), pictured with colleagues from Fervo Energy, is working on innovative geothermal projects

A regular volunteer at homeless shelters, Lang thought about the world around her. Clean energy was always at the back of her mind. But, she says, it was working on a gas storage project that opened her eyes and made her see that wells can be used in all kinds of ways, not just to pump oil or gas. 

“I wanted to get into the green energy space,” says Lang. “Given the state of our world, we need renewable energy options. So I decided to look for a solution before it’s too late. I wanted to turn my curiosity into opportunity.”  

The change wasn’t difficult. Lang’s skills were perfect for her new role: a drilling and completions operations engineer at Fervo Energy, a Houston, Texas start-up, working on next-generation geothermal projects. 

“There’s a learning curve,” she says. “But it’s nothing an engineer can’t manage.” 

As she sees it, uncertainty is the biggest hurdle for engineers moving into renewable energy. Uncertainty about stability, salaries, travel and working hours. Industries such as oil and gas are established, while green energy companies are just getting started. Engineers wonder whether they’re making a long-term, reliable investment by moving. But Lang points to recent changes in energy legislation and says the picture looks positive for the decades ahead. She says that, while it may feel intimidating, engineers should trust their gut, and their experience. 

She adds that geothermal energy is growing because it’s using a lot of the technology developed by the oil and gas industry. As an engineer who’s involved in every part of her company’s projects, she uses “the same puzzle pieces” in different ways.     

“I took a leap,” says Lang. “And found the best job I’ve ever had. Life is about trying new things and exploring the world, because you only have so much time.” 

Ashley Jarvis, Octopus Energy

For Ashley Jarvis, the moment came as he stared at a customer’s 25-year-old gas boiler. It needed repairs. Again. He wondered how much longer he could keep this relic alive. 

Jarvis had been working for British Gas for most of the boiler’s existence (17 years by then). He’d hit a ceiling and felt he wasn’t learning or doing anything new. 

With new government home-heating guidelines on the horizon, Jarvis also couldn’t shake the feeling that his days as a gas engineer were numbered. But what was really pushing him in a new direction were his two young children. He kept thinking about the world they’ll be living in, and the role gas boilers were playing in heating the planet, damaging its delicate ecosystems. 

Working on that old boiler, Jarvis realised he didn’t want to extend the lives of machines that were part of the problem. He wanted his work to be part of the solution. It was time for a change. 

With a toolbox packed with skills (repairing, servicing, upgrading and certifying gas appliances) Jarvis moved to Octopus Energy. He took a role as a lead heat pump installation engineer, and quickly advanced to technical support lead for the sales and installation teams. 

He was new to heat pumps, which are powered by electricity and can use air or ground heat to match what gas boilers do. The technology bridge proved to be Octopus Energy’s training centre, where Jarvis joined a small group to learn the theory and the practical elements of installing heat pumps. Moving to a smaller company, he found a sense of teamwork, which felt new and exciting. 

“Installing heat pumps requires most of the basic skills a heating engineer would have, like installing radiators and cylinders, but also the chance to learn about system design, commissioning of systems and fault finding,” Jarvis explains. “The renewables industry is a positive place to work.” 

Not only was he able to quickly transfer his skills, but Jarvis also now helps his colleagues talk to clients about the benefits of heat pumps. He consults on technical solutions, creates training materials and runs workshops. 

“With heat pumps becoming more and more popular, there are loads of opportunities for people with the relevant skills,” adds Jarvis. “People I joined with have progressed onto head installer roles, have become managers or, like me, are taking technical support or system design roles. There really are loads of exciting opportunities in a growing industry, as long as you’re open to developing your current skills and gaining new ones.”

While heat pumps are not a new technology, they are not yet widely used in the UK. There are ambitious plans to encourage more homes to install them, but the upfront cost remains a hurdle. Jarvis sees a technology that’s improving day by day, and plenty of learning ahead. Not to mention government plans to offer subsidies to those switching to heat pumps. Together with his wife, Jarvis is raising their son and daughter. He no longer faces off against ancient boilers and says he feels good about going to work each day.  

“It’s great to be able to help people with their journey to become carbon neutral.” 

Matthew Laskaj, Project Engineering Management Ltd

Matthew Laskaj has advice forengineers moving to renewables industries: there are endless opportunities, but it’s not always as simple as it seems. 

The warning comes from an experienced mechanical engineer who’s moved not only industries, but also countries. And from being employed to running his own business. 

Laskaj’s career has taken him from food factories to aluminium mills to offshore oil rigs. He moved from his Australian home town, Melbourne, to Perth, and then to (a much colder) Aberdeen in Scotland. He spent years working on drilling sites, refineries and mines. It took him three years to break into the oil industry – a move he was proud of given he had to demonstrate a host of transferable skills. 

But, in 2015, the drilling company he was working for retrenched his entire team. Laskaj was left with a choice: find a new job or try something new. He chose something new. And Project Engineering Management Ltd was born. 

Matthew Laskaj founded his own company which manages projects and offers training to engineers

Matthew Laskaj founded his own company which manages projects and offers training to engineers

Laskaj’s company manages projects and offers training. He speaks to engineers going through similar experiences, or those starting their careers, making big life decisions. 

Being in Scotland, he sees engineers from oil and gas helping build wind turbines or joining carbon-capture and storage initiatives. 

“It’s great to see people moving from role to role, from industry to industry,” says Laskaj. “But it’s not as straightforward as many think.” 

Working on wind turbines, he explains, often means moving to where the wind is. An engineer he knows recently made such a move across the UK, joining a company working in offshore wind. 

“She’s loving it,” says Laskaj. “Aside from the sea sickness she gets going out to the turbines.” 

But for some engineers, he explains, relocating can be difficult, or can even be a deal-breaker. While some start-ups are hiring rapidly, it can still be difficult to get into larger energy firms. For experienced oil and gas engineers, salaries can present hurdles. 

“Mechanical engineers have skills that are very transferable. Generally, machines are machines, processes are processes. But it can be challenging. There’s more to it than just technical skills.” Laskaj says that, when skills don’t line up perfectly, or if competing applicants have the same qualifications, other factors come into play. Things such as passion, and a willingness to learn. 

“You have to demonstrate an interest in the industry you’re moving to,” says Laskaj. “You might need to show that you’re doing more than what’s required. Maybe it’s a membership to a professional body, courses you’ve taken, events you’re attending or volunteer work you’re doing.” 

Laskaj is the chair of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Scottish region, a role he volunteers for. The rise of renewable energy has pulled him towards new frontiers. He’s training engineers who work for wind companies, covering topics such as maintenance, reliability or fault investigation. His IMechE training includes an introduction to wind turbines. And, when he works with local students or apprentices, he takes groups to visit a friend who runs a wind-turbine farm. This gives them a chance to get some extra real-life experience. 

“Mechanical engineering opens many doors to many careers. One of these is renewable energy. Whether you get in from the start, or transfer in later, it doesn’t matter. Just try to bridge the gap and demonstrate you’re a good fit.” 

Are you up to date on the latest advances in decarbonisation and net zero? To make sure you are, attend the Sustainability in Engineering webinar series from Professional Engineering and IMechE (25-29 September). Register for free now.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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