Insider insight: Emma Pinchbeck

Emma Pinchbeck, head of climate change at WWF, is shortly to become executive director of RenewableUK

Emma Pinchbeck will take up her new role in November. Photograph: RenewableUKWhat has helped you get where you are in your career?

My career path looks linear in hindsight, but it wasn't planned in that way. I've taken chances on different roles and organisations, which has allowed me to see the sector from different perspectives, and given me a broader technical knowledge.

Much of my work is about long-term strategy and system change, and it can help to see things from more than one point of view. I also believe in investing time in your professional relationships: having a strong network of colleagues and confidants in the sector is invaluable for sharing knowledge, new ideas - and the odd frustration.

Who have been your role-models/mentors?

I have been lucky enough to have had managers who acted more like mentors. In my immediate professional network there are a few people I turn to for honest advice over a drink. But in particular, my former colleagues at Ecuity Consulting have been an invaluable support over the years and gave me my first real break to develop my career.

In terms of role models, I've worked with some exceptional women, whether they've been heading up companies, teams in government departments or sitting alongside me in the office. I think it's good for the industry to have more diversity around the table, and I will do what I can in the way of mentoring to support young women at the start of their careers. 

What qualifications are the most necessary/most beneficial in the clean energy sector?

I've got a really good friend who is a marine renewables engineer and she naturally has a science PhD. But I've also met many skilled installers who were turning their plumbing qualifications over to become solar or renewable heating installers.

And working in policy, it's anybody's guess as to people's backgrounds. I have a humanities degree, which is useful when it comes to translating what our scientists or modellers are telling me into messages for a lay audience. But if I had known I would be doing this for a living I would have been tempted by architecture, as I have a soft-spot for sustainable buildings, or economics, as I also have a soft-spot for a good MAC curve.

Overall I think it's important for the future of the sector that we highlight how big and diverse it is. For every marine renewables engineer or expert installer there's a job which doesn't require a specific qualification or set career path. 

What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way? And how did you adapt to these challenges?

It's been a time of immense political change, in a highly regulated market. On the one hand, that has made the need for strategic advocacy and policy work all the more necessary. On the other hand, it has occasionally made planning ahead tricky.

My team are good at thinking on their feet, and I help them by being adaptable and taking decisions without necessarily having every single detail worked out in advance. There's not much you can do about external circumstances apart from always having  a ‘Plan B’ ready to go - and making sure that you've got motivated staff to try it.

What have been the pivotal moments in the field?

It's an exciting and challenging time to be working in energy; technologically, environmentally and socially we are approaching tipping points. For me, the Paris Agreement was a great moment because nearly 200 countries agreed to take immediate action on decarbonisation.

On the technology front, I'm excited by the falling costs of established renewable generation and its ability to challenge incumbent technologies.

I'm also keeping an eye (along with everyone else) on storage. The National Grid enhanced frequency response tender showed there is already significant commercial interest in lithium batteries and storage technology of all kinds is critical to unlocking innovation in the energy market and joining it with other areas of the economy, like transport or the built environment. 

What stages of your career have been the most rewarding?

This one. And hopefully the next one! Every stage of my career so far has offered its own challenge and rewards and I hope for that to continue. 

How do you get the most out of your team/colleagues?  

We've got a culture of honesty, positivity and genuine dialogue within the team. I've also got a robust sense of humour, which helps if you work in politics or on climate change. Above all, I have excellent staff, and whilst I might set out the direction of our work, I trust them all to do their jobs in the way they want to do them, and to intervene with resources, guidance or cake as required. 

Where do you think there are the most job opportunities in the sector?

We are on the cusp of some interesting ‘energy careers’ that look very different to the jobs available today in the sector, brought about by innovations in the sector, such as the internet of things, smart technology and the deployment of enabling technologies like storage.

There will continue to be jobs in renewables, the more so as the transition gathers pace. Energy provision will always be a government priority and climate change is gathering pace - so there will jobs like mine in decarbonisation policy and advocacy for some time to come!

What other advice do you have for people about to embark on careers in the sector?

Go for it. It's fascinating, frustrating and endlessly varied - and if you're as lucky as I have been, working in this sector can also change your life. 

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