Career advice and insights from Neil Harrison, co-founding director of North East-based biomass energy specialist, re:heat
How did you land your current job?
I established re:heat with Ben Tansey in 2011. We’d worked together previously and we saw an opportunity to combine our experiences in the renewable energy and forestry sectors and introduce something a little different to what was then still an emerging domestic and industrial biomass heating market.
Do you have any tips for people about to embark in your field on how to make a success out of their careers in sustainability?
The renewables industry is still relatively young and is therefore extremely fast-moving. The best advice I can give is do your homework to ensure you’re always up to speed with the latest developments. Stay in touch with legislation and never miss an opportunity to talk to an expert.
What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way?
For at least 15 years, successive governments of various persuasions have failed to deliver a stable, long-term energy policy in the UK. This regulatory uncertainty destabilises the industry by threatening investment. Environmental stewardship has always been a driver for renewables but our industry needs to elevate sound economic principles to the same level of priority.
What stages of your career have been the most challenging?
My first job after completing my second degree was as an environmental lecturer / trainer in the public sector. The industry was still considered to be the exclusive preserve of environmentalists directed only by their moral compass. My environmental values are strong but I also have a mortgage to pay!
The most rewarding?
I’m excited by the space re:heat occupies today and the potential it has in the future. The business is genuinely at the cutting edge of our industry, and we’re committed to skills development and driving up quality in the sector through our work with various trade associations including the Wood Heat Association for whom I chair the quality and standards working group.
What is key to getting the most out of your team/colleagues?
You should ask them but I hope we provide a stimulating environment in which to work. We reward good people for a job well done and while we all work hard, we also know how to have fun and enjoy the challenges we face together.
What have been the ground-breaking instances or milestones in the sustainability field that have really changed the way you have to work?
The government’s Renewable Heat Incentive dramatically changed our sector when it was introduced in 2011. Its undoubted positive contribution has been to make renewable heating technologies more accessible to industrial and domestic users. However, where a market is incentivised without adequate regulation being in place it is bound to attract less scrupulous new entrants. That quality issue is a top priority for the sector.
What qualifications have been necessary/most beneficial in your career?
My masters degree in rural resource management from Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy has never failed me!
Have you had much continuing professional development, has this been useful?
It was especially helpful earlier in my career and I guess where I’m at now my focus is on remaining on top of the legislative and regulatory agenda. The downside of running your own business is that you can neglect your own CPD but that’s OK as long as you’re committed to it for your team.
Could you sum up, in one sentence, what has changed in the industry since you first began your job?
The introduction and subsequent extension of the Renewable Heat Incentive has signalled a welcome shift in government thinking around addressing the role that heat plays in our carbon emissions, but the sector itself has much more to do especially in the areas of skills and quality.
What does the future have in store for your industry – choppy waters ahead? Or a fruitful and secure future?
Given that we’re in the middle of a consultation on the future of our sector’s main support mechanism now is not necessarily the best time to answer that question! That said, society will always need heat so it’s up to government and our sector to establish a means for meeting that demand while adhering to the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social and economic.