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Meet the apprentices upgrading the UK’s infrastructure for net zero

Young workers at the National Grid are playing an important role in the transition to a low carbon economy.

By Samir Jeraj

Jade Kimpton first learned about energy from her father, who worked on substations and overhead lines. “For me growing up, seeing the work that he did and hearing him talk about it at dinner, I found that really inspiring,” she says.

So after doing her A-Levels, Kimpton decided to do an apprenticeship. “I actually found it on the government website and that was where I applied for it,” she tells Spotlight. It was early 2020 and Covid-19 meant all her interviews were online. “I was quite surprised about how long and intense the interview process was, it was quite difficult to get the job,” she recalls.

Today the 21-year-old is one of 164 apprentices at the National Grid. She mainly works on substations, just like her Dad did. Substations facilitate the flow of energy, and increasingly that includes generation of renewables. Many sources of renewable energy are variable, she explains. When the wind stops blowing, for example, so does the supply of electricity powered by wind. Inconsistent supply leads to variation in voltage levels and power flow. Substations help smooth these peaks and troughs.

Kimpton’s days still include a lot of on-the-job learning, sometimes at a training centre, where she studies the theory and practice of engineering, and sometimes on site which, she admits, is “probably my favourite part.” There is maintenance to do, commissioning in new equipment, and connecting in new renewable generation. In Norfolk, where she is based, numbers of solar and wind farms are increasing.

The National Grid estimates that the UK needs to create around 400,000 green jobs to transition to a net zero economy by 2050, which the UK is committed to by law. “The main thing that I love about my job is knowing that I am playing my part in meeting net zero and tackling climate change,” she says. Kimpton would ultimately like to become a commissioning engineer, working on the substations with a focus on bringing in new equipment and putting it into service.

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“I’d say this to anyone who’s thinking about getting into the industry: now is the time, it’s a really exciting time to join,” says Kimpton, who is keen to get more women in what is still a male-dominated industry.

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“I think that does tend to put some women and girls off,” she says. But Kimpton has found her workplace to be supportive and welcoming: “I think a lot of people on site view me as like a daughter or a sister, and they’re all incredibly helpful. I’ve never had any problems. I think it’s important that we do have a diverse workforce, because I think that will ultimately help us to tackle climate change.”

Fellow apprentice Joshua Mims, 20, has been working and studying project management at the National Grid for the past ten months. “I always wanted to be hands on, and proactive,” he says. Unfortunately, towards the end of his time at college, Covid-19 hit. Mims was looking around for an apprenticeship as a third lockdown loomed.

“I said to myself, ‘I have to get myself out there, I need to get myself into an apprenticeship’ and that’s when I saw National Grid’s application form,” he recalls. It was a lengthy application process, but he landed the role. Formerly a retail worker, now he is about to start working as part of the team delivering a huge infrastructure project – London Power Tunnels.

London power tunnels is a one-billion pound National Grid project that is helping to replace the electricity transmission infrastructure across the whole of the capital. North London was completed in phase one in 2018, and now South London is being upgraded with a new network of cables running underground for 32 km. Phase 2 is expected to be completed by 2026.

“To be part of this, at an age of 20 is quite surreal for me. It’s quite incredible when I speak to my mates, and I tell them what I’m up to and they’re just stunned when I say what the project is,” he says.

Aside from sites safety walks, audits, and inspections, Mims also has training and shadowing opportunities where he can learn from experienced colleagues. “I’ve completed all my training and I can now go on to site completely by myself, but I still do like to be shadowing just for the feedback aspect because I always feel like there’s things to learn,” he says. And, Mims adds, he loves “being part of the renewable energy team – and going for that goal of net zero.”

This article is part of a series exploring the front line of the net zero transition. Read more here

[See also: Meet the farmer who invested in a wind turbine]