Australia is a great country for renewable energy generation with plenty of sun, wind, and water reservoirs. However, to reliably trump fossil fuel generation, our grid needs to be updated with more modern technologies, and the need for power engineers is greater than ever! 

With the global push for renewable energy, we are seeing a shortage of the required skills to get us there. The latest report from Engineers Australia shows that less and less Australian high school students are studying physics and advanced mathematics courses. Less than 6% of girls study physics and only 6.2% of girls and 11.5% of boys study advanced mathematics.  

This is concerning for many of the STEM industries in Australia, especially as we move away from our traditional resource-based economy, which poses a threat to the future of renewable energy in Australia. With a shortage of power engineers, Australia simply will not have the skillset to transform our power grid to withstand the influx of renewable energy.
There are plenty of jobs available for students who complete an electrical engineering degree, and pressure is being put on the government to ensure that we can meet the need for power engineers with more domestic engineers. Currently, 57% of engineers in Australia were born overseas which is much higher than the national average of 40%.  
We spoke to Lead Electrical Engineer, Lize-Marie Van Wyk from Aurecon who works in power engineering and renewable energy projects. We wanted to know what Lize-Marie thinks about the shortage and why it is imperative that we address this issue now. Check out our Q&A below.

What does an electrical power engineer do?

 An electrical engineer focuses on the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power. This can include designing, planning and/or commissioning of power networks, testing of electrical equipment and/or power system studies. 

As part of my work, I also manage projects (budget, resources, etc.) and work directly with clients. It is not all technical all the time 😊 

There is a shortage of power engineers in Australia; what effect could a continued lack have on our nation's power grid and renewable energy future? 

You would have seen in the news recently that Australia is aiming to achieve net-zero electricity emissions by 2050 which means that there will be an increasing demand for electrical engineers in the Australian market and globally. Currently the national energy grid relies on the existing fossil generation to maintain stability. A lack of power engineers is bound to delay progress towards this goal which will only be achievable if modern technologies are adopted, and the distribution of electricity transformed in the coming years. 

Is being a power engineer something you can study at university, or do you specialise once you join the industry? And what was it about power engineering that attracted you to the profession?

Power engineering is a job that you can obtain upon the completion of an Electrical Engineering Bachelor. Other jobs that electrical engineers can have include substation engineering, consulting, grid maintenance, telecommunications and more.

I studied electrical engineering at the University of Pretoria in South Africa where it is available as an undergraduate degree. The subjects taken in the first two years overlapped with other engineering fields of study (civil, mechanical, chemical etc.), but from the third year, most were related to electrical engineering. Typical electrical engineering subjects include mathematics, electrical power systems, electrical machines, electromagnetism, control systems, power electronics, electrical drives, etc.

There wasn’t a huge interest in electrical engineering at my university which I thought presented an opportunity in the market. Electrical engineering work also tends to be less affected by a downturn in the economy. The world always needs electricity. 

Which part of your job do you find the most rewarding? 

I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of my work the most. It is very rewarding knowing that I have contributed to the successful connection of a renewable energy plant (battery, solar farm, wind farm, etc.) to the national power grid and contributed in that way to a more sustainable future. 
See the image below for the solar farm Lize-Marie helped build in the Northern Cape of South Africa and the installation of the electrical equipment (breakers, isolators, etc.) at a new 132 kV switching station in South Africa.  

Is it like a trade, all site work with high-viz vests and hard hats?

I work on the power system studies and planning team therefore almost all my projects are office based. The mix between site and office work would vary between projects and depends on your role. Most of the electrical engineering work at an engineering consultancy firm like Aurecon would be office based with occasional site visits to do inspections.

Looking back on your time in high school, which experiences contributed to your decision to study engineering?  

I knew I wanted to pursue a career that presented the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects within a technical discipline such as engineering. I found math, science, and technical drawing interesting in high school. 

What advice do you have for high school students who might be interested in something like Electrical Engineering?    

Practice critical thinking – do not just focus on how something is done, but always ask why too. Report writing and people skills sometimes get overlooked because engineering is perceived as being mostly technical. Technical skills are required to understand and perform the work, but soft skills such as writing enables you to communicate the outcomes to clients. 

By Zali Steiner - Girls in Engineering Club Ambassador