Waving the flag for renewable energy

Joe lives in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland and uses the power of the strong waves in the surrounding seas to make environmentally friendly, renewable energy.

Read on for more about Joe's job and how he likes to use wave power for his hobbies too... 

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Name: Joe Thompson
Age: 25
Where do you live? Stromness, Orkney
Job title: Operations Engineer at Pelamis Wave Power
Studied: A-levels: Maths, Physics, Design Technology, Sculpture
University: BSc Product Design Engineering: Glasgow University/Glasgow School of Art
MSc Marine Renewable Energy: The University of Plymouth

Tell us about the company you work for, Pelamis:
Pelamis Wave Power is a world-leading developer for wave power conversion technology. We develop, manufacture and operate Pelamis machines, which use the movement of the waves to generate electricity. We’ve reached a stage where energy companies are buying our machines to demonstrate in Orkney, which is a big step towards the commercialisation of wave power.

What do you do in your job as Operations Engineer?
My job largely involves the everyday operation and maintenance of the Pelamis wave energy machines. This can involve manipulating the control system of the machines in order make sure we capture energy from waves as efficiently as possible. I also help install the machines offshore, perform hands-on machine maintenance at the quayside and feedback information on how the Pelamis machine works to the engineering design team behind it. 

How does your work affect the production of renewable wave energy?
Pelamis are currently demonstrating two machines in Orkney. This means we’re not just showing what the technology can already do, but we’re also testing everything about how the machines work to be able to improve them in future. What we learn from these tests will result in better, more efficient technology and we’ll also lower the cost of producing electricity from wave power. 

Being part of the team involved in this means that by doing my job well I am directly contributing to the advancement of the wave power industry. I can also control how much electricity is produced through actively controlling the resistance of the machine at the joints to maximise the electricity generated when Pelamis moves with the waves.

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How does it feel to work in an industry that’s important to the future of the planet?

I always had a desire to make a positive difference to the world and to work towards something I felt was worthwhile so helping develop a new source of renewable energy is hugely satisfying.

I find it very satisfying to operate the machines and use the control system to make the machines generate as much electricity as possible.

Why are Scotland and Orkney good places to generate marine energy?
There are many factors that combine to make Scotland and Orkney an ideal place to develop the wave power renewable energy industry. The West and North coasts of the UK boast a significant wave resource with the whole power of the Atlantic reaching the land. There is also a long history of offshore industries around Orkney and the Scottish government strongly supports marine renewable energy through competitions like the Saltire Prize (this is a competition that aims to find new wave and tidal technology. They also run a Junior Saltire Prize for young people – Ed).

The European Marine Energy Centre was founded in Orkney around 10 years ago and it provides facilities for testing wave and tidal energy machines in real conditions and this is where we currently test our machines.

Could you describe an average day?
We don’t really have average days since almost every day involves something different. Pelamis has a very flexible job structure which means that if you have a particular skill that doesn’t necessarily fall under your job description, they will find a way for you to use it. For example I have experience with Computer Aided Design (CAD) so I’m currently helping redesign a part used in the installation of the machines.

Which “branch” of engineering do you work in?
My background was in mechanical engineering, but I also do a lot of work in control engineering too.

It sounds as though you work in a variety of locations?

I do work in several locations. These include an office (with spectacular views over the sea), around the quayside and inside the machines and also out at sea on a boat during offshore operations.

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And what is it like working in Orkney?
Working in Orkney is sometimes a challenge - it is tough in the winter when the daylight hours are short and the storms are regular, but it is also a very beautiful landscape and the long summer days when the wind isn’t blowing make it all worthwhile.

How did you find out about your job?
I had managed to get a foot in the door of the marine renewables industry through my previous job with a company that work with Pelamis Wave Power. So the experience and contacts I gained there helped me greatly when it came to applying for my current role.

What do you find most challenging about your job?
Sometimes you can work a very long day when you are out on the boat during an installation but it is all worth it in the end when you see the machines out on site, in the sea, generating energy.

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What first got you interested in engineering?
I’ve always had an interest in how things work and liked to take things apart from a young age to understand how they worked so a career in engineering was a natural progression for me.

What subjects did you study at school?
At A-level I studied Maths, Physics, Design Technology and Sculpture.

And how are these subjects important to what you do now?
Maths and Physics are fundamental to the work I do every day, but Design Technology has helped me greatly in understanding the whole process involved in bringing an idea like the Pelamis machine to fruition.

What did you study at university?
I studied Product Design Engineering as a joint degree course between Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art before going on to do an MSc in Marine Renewable Energy at the University of Plymouth.

What kind of personal qualities do you think are important for an engineer?
An engineer needs to be persistent. Sometimes a problem will arise with no clear solution and you need to have a strong will to not give up until you find the answer.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into a similar career?
Aim any projects that you do at school and university towards the industry you would like to be involved in and always take any opportunity you can to learn new skills as you never know when they might be useful.

If you could go back in time and invent anything, what would it be?
The ultimate invention for me would be a device to control the weather but if I had a time machine I think that would be more than enough to keep me entertained.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I am an avid surfer so when I’m not trying to capture the energy of the waves at work you will still find me out in the sea capturing wave energy on a surf board.

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More links...

For more about the European Marine Energy Centre

Pelamis Wave Power

Furnance Compare - Energy Efficiency