Roy Stewart, an asset integration engineer for ScottishPower Renewables, tells Boc Ly about how he got started in the industry, the challenges and opportunities in wind power and why he’s spreading the word about union membership.
When the renewables business was still in its relative infancy around the turn of the millennium, a young ScottishPower station engineer could see over the fence where the company was building one of its early wind farms.
He decided that it was the future, and more specifically, it was also his future.
Roy Stewart, now 51, started as an electrical fitter at Methil Power station for the South of Scotland Electricity Board through its apprenticeship programme when he was 16.
In 1991 ScottishPower would emerge from the SSEB after privatisation and by 1996, Roy was a station engineer at the Lanark Hydro’s on the banks of the River Clyde.
As luck would have it, there was a close relationship between the hydros group and their wind farm colleagues. Roy’s interest was piqued.
“The Lanark Hydro’s was a great place to work, but the plant was built in the 1920s, and when it was running you're there just to keep it going. You’re not building or making anything; just maintaining what people had designed and built 80 years ago,” he recalls.
“At the same time, just across the fence, I could see they were building wind farms and creating new sites. We got slightly involved in that, like sharing storage facilities, so I was aware of the early projects and what was going on, but not fully involved.
“I wanted to be part of the wind business because I saw that it was a bit more dynamic. I was young and a bit more career driven then!”
Solving the disconnect
Roy successfully applied for the role of a wind farm engineer in 2001. Back then, there were very few people in ScottishPower doing that job, and looking after a handful of sites.
As more wind farms were being built, it was found that there was a disconnect once they were handed over by the construction teams to the operational team.
“We found that they were handing over wind farms to our operations team that were not quite ticking all the boxes,” says Roy.
The solution was a new role for Roy, an asset integration engineer, which he does to this day.
“I have a foot in both camps, staying in operations but sitting with the construction teams. For any wind farm, or renewables project, I’m part of the early development process right through construction into operations to make sure that ScottishPower standards are adhered to.”
His work has taken him abroad to many countries exploring advances in turbines and other new technologies.
“When I started turbines were small, less than 1 megawatt, and very expensive. You could easily argue that fossil fuels and nuclear were better investments,” Roy says.
However, over the last 15 years there have been dramatic improvements – the turbines have got larger, cheaper, safer and they can produce lots more power.
Roy talks enthusiastically about the future possibilities for renewables, such as battery storage, solar and tidal, to name just three.
“It's fascinating how people can come up with these inventions to eek electricity out of a wave! It's amazing. The technology aspect was the whole reason for me to move into the wind farm business in the first place.”
In October, ScottishPower sold the remainder of its gas and hydro plants to Drax, in the process making it the first of the big energy companies to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable sources.
While he is proud of the expertise within the company and their commitment to renewables, Roy is under no illusions about the path ahead.
Not for a long time, if ever, will renewables alone be able to make up the shortfall as fossil fuels gradually diminish. So Roy, just like this union, argues persuasively for a balanced energy mix, including nuclear.
Plus, demand for electricity will only grow and grow in the coming years. Electric vehicles, public transportation and heating for homes will all draw ravenously from the grid.
Renewables could contribute even more, insists Roy, if the process for planning, building and securing funding for wind farms were simplified and made easier by the powers that be.
He points to initiatives such as the electricity market reform’s contracts for difference and the power purchase agreements as being tricky hoops to jump through.
“Renewables are strong in Scotland and I'd like that to be the case in England too. I get that not everyone is a fan of a wind farm but I think the vast majority of people would support it nowadays, especially with climate change. That issue is now sinking in, especially with the younger generation,” says Roy.
Even so, despite the challenges, Roy is optimistic and, certainly within ScottishPower, only sees a bright future for renewables.
“From my perspective, it's all good news. We're expanding. We need more people to work in renewables, especially from an offshore side of it, like the East Anglia project.
“Other than the manufacturing of turbines, we do nearly everything else in house. Development, planning, construction and especially in operations, that’s what I like about ScottishPower, we've got staff at all levels and talents to manage the whole process. We're very slick at it.”
Roy has always been a committed trade unionist since the start of his career.
“I see the union in two parts: one is the personal protection, that if I get into trouble, then I'll have someone in my corner.
“I also see a union in the collective sense to give workers a stronger voice. That makes sense to me. I've never used it from a personal point of view, but I've definitely seen the benefits from a collective point of view.
“I think all the benefits that I see today in terms of my pay, my terms and conditions, or my annual leave. I can see them slowly being eroded if I wasn't in a union.
“It's harder for us in ScottishPower Renewables, as opposed to other businesses within ScottishPower, in that they haven't recognised Prospect, or any other union, and that's a battle that I've got at the moment, to try and change attitudes. I am slowly doing that, I am pleased to say.
“Our membership has increased dramatically over the past few years. So it’s steadily improving but I'm still trying to get the message out.”
This article represents the personal views and opinions of the author and/or the individuals quoted in the article, and do not represent the opinion of any company within the ScottishPower group.