Nina Skorupska: Coal expert to renewables chief

29 Aug 2019

The chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association talks about her varied career in the energy industry, the work of the REA and UK energy policy.

Nina Skorupska has worked in the energy industry for more than 30 years. Beginning as a researcher, with a PhD in improving the efficiency of burning coal, she has also been an engineering manager, a power station manager, an energy trader and held senior leadership positions in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands for energy giant, the RWE Group.

She is currently the chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, sits on the board of Transport for London and is deputy chair of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Board. She talks to Boc Ly about her varied career, the work of the REA and UK energy policy.

Your energy career started in coal research?

I did research on improving the efficiency of burning international coal in the UK’s coal fired power stations back in the 80s. This was before anybody was worried and concerned about climate change. But it set me off on a theme of always wanting to improve, and getting the best out of our resources.

Then I went to work for the International Energy Agency, in their coal research team, now known as the Clean Coal Centre. I built a massive database of understanding coal plants around the world.

I got to know people at National Power Prospect and in 1992 they recruited me to be their fuel expert. That’s when I became a Prospect member as well.

During that time, there was the mad cow disease crisis going on and we actually did research in our labs about whether we could burn the meat and bone meal in our coal plants to create energy.

You have so much expertise, including a doctorate, in coal power. Is any part of you a little sad that coal is dying out?

No. I cannot be enamoured by a technology that’s contributing to climate change. And even though I loved the gas-fired power plants I worked at, and all the people, we have to wean ourselves off that as well, unless we can capture the Co2.

Do I still have my pictures and slides of the coal particles that I took from my research? Of course, I do. And I’m proud of the work we did. But that was then!

We have to be thinking about what we need to do to address the challenge of delivering an affordable and reliable energy system for people. And, my goodness, it cannot be responsible for creating the climate emergency that we’re experiencing.

How did you move from a research role into the more practical and engineering side of things?

A big part of my job as National Power’s fuels expert was to help improve the performance of the power plants across the fleet.

I had got to know all the power station managers, and as you can guess, they tended to be gentlemen. As I did the role of supporting them and challenging them about how they were running their power stations, I realised, I could do this job. So I put my hand up and said, ‘I’d like to work on a power station.’

First, they laughed, but eventually they asked me to be engineering manager at Tilbury and Littlebrook power stations. That was a fantastic time, learning the nuts and bolts of how a power station works.

I didn’t break anything and then they asked me to be a power station manager at Didcot B, near Oxford. At the time it was National Power’s flagship, brand new CCGT plant. I was there for three years, and it was fantastic.

You also held senior management and executive leadership positions at a group level, but not before you took a left-turn into energy trading?

I was a trader for three years, which was wonderful. It appealed to my competitive spirit, but it took me away from my deeper love, which is engineering and delivering practical solutions.

So I went back to my roots and became the director of technology services, which is the division where I started as the fuel expert. I became the boss of quite a lot of my old colleagues. I had 1,300 staff, working on environment, science, looking into the future, planning and providing consultancy services to international projects.

Then they asked me to go to Germany, where I worked across the 25 operating companies and created a headquarters for a group called Performance Improvement. How do we share best practice? How do we improve the way that we do things across retail, the grid, power stations, R&D, and help save the company 2.5bn euros?

That was an amazing experience. I was one of six Brits out of 650 people at their HQ and learning German at the age of 46.

Then the opportunity came to become a board member at one of the companies in the RWE Group in the Netherlands. I was responsible for all the Dutch generation fleet, R&D, and growing the wind farms and looking at biomass. Transforming the power generation to a renewable one was very much on the agenda in the Netherlands back then.

Finally, I left the company after 20 years in the whole RWE group and took six months off and looked for my next exciting chapter.

Which, was to become chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, a post you’ve held for six years now. What is the REA and what is the organisation’s role in the UK’s energy landscape?

The Renewable Energy Association was created in 2001. It was essentially a trade association to represent the fledgling renewable power industries, for everything except wind, because there was already a trade association for wind power.

Very quickly we realised that it’s not just about power, it is also about heat and transport. So we now represent everything that’s renewable and clean technology to deliver power, heat and transport, and try to understand the landscape in which those technologies are landing.

In the London office, we have about 20 people working as policy and regulatory specialists. But we work really closely with our members to come up with practical solutions to get further deployment of these technologies.

So, to summarise, our job is to deliver a low carbon future and grow renewable and clean technology to benefit the general public and the economy, UK PLC, overall.

The renewables landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, and there’s more to come as well?

In the time I’ve been here, we’ve seen renewable power contribution grow to over 33%, which is fantastic. Nor had anybody forecast how fast the cost of those technologies would come down.

We have moved to being much more decentralised, and power flows move backwards and forwards, and not just in a single direction. The complexity is fascinating. The cost savings that can happen as a result of embracing decentralised renewable technologies with batteries, and other technologies, will be amazing.

Part of our job is not only to lobby government, and to work with the regulators and create the right framework to enable all this to happen. It’s also about bringing the general public along as well.

You were on the panel at Prospect’s energy sector conference in Manchester. One of the questions raised the poor reputation of health and safety in renewables generally, and especially of the smaller operators. What’s your response?

I helped build some of the improved frameworks for how safety should be considered across the whole RWE Group, and health and safety is one of the roles I have on the TfL board.

So, as you can imagine, professionalism and health and safety is a top priority for us. We’ve run many, many training courses and sharing of best practice and learning lessons is always adhered to. We work closely with our members to raise those standards.

If we do have members, who are a bit gung-ho in their attitudes and put people’s safety at risk, then as soon as we’re aware of them, they’re no longer members of the REA.

Do you feel the reputation is bit unfair because renewables, compared to traditional power, is still a fledgling industry?

I think as every business grows, it depends on the leader: are they here to make a fast buck and get out? Or are they a proper business leader, who is concerned for their staff, and the people who use their products?

We work closely with the Institution of Engineering and Technology on initially developing codes and then creating standards. We build it all up to full training programmes.

I think this is where trade unions could play a very important role, working with us in delivering that agenda. It also means having qualifications and accreditation for individuals and making sure that we train the next generation of renewable systems deliverers.

Do you have an ambition for renewables delivering a specific proportion of the UK’s energy mix by a certain time? Or do you just think, well, we’re at a third already, and that’s pretty good?

Over the last two years we have done some really great economic studies. The challenge, with renewables always come back to ‘you’re only getting there with subsidies.’

We conducted a study with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, supported by fantastic members like Eaton, Drax and many others. It showed that by 2030, renewable power could be delivering on the system to the levels of around about 74-75%. By 2040 it could go over 80%, and that’s purely from an economic point of view

You could have grid constraints, and other barriers that could come into play. Skills shortages could be one of those as well. But there’s nothing to suggest that we cannot meet that demand, from an economic perspective, from renewable sources.

The big enabler is digitalisation. People need to understand important skills are not only in building things, but in how they communicate with each other, and using data is going to be vitally important for our future energy system.

If you look back five years, would you have predicted where we are today? If I look forward five years, my crystal ball has some clear directions, but it’s still pretty foggy because something new will arrive.

If you were in charge of UK energy policy, what would be some of the things at the top of your wish list?

I’ve been asked this question many times, and the very first one would be to mandate that every new home must be energy efficient, and have renewable technologies built into it as standard.

The other one is to accelerate the changes that the grid businesses are going through to make sure that they really are delivering. We’re hearing some great statements from the different network operators, and they’re setting out their goals. But it feels a bit slow. The technology and digital democratisation approach is here now, we don’t have to wait for 2030.

The other aspect for me is if the oil and gas sector industries are really serious about changing, then change. My old company, RWE, still runs coal fired power plants in Germany. They know they’ve got to change but are saying it’ll happen in 2040. That’s too far in the future. We can’t afford that delay.

You’re now deputy chair of WISE. How tough was it for you in the beginning when you were trying to carve out a career in the male-dominated energy industry?

I come from a very poor working class background and I was brought up with a mantra from my mum. She would say, “Come on, Nina, education is everything. With education, you can achieve anything.”

The next thing she said was, “Don’t ask or expect any man to give you anything, if you want to achieve something, you have to go and do it yourself.”

So that was the rallying cry from both my mum and my dad, who in the home, everything was equal, both of them worked in factories, both of them worked shifts, both of them did the cooking and the ironing. That’s how I saw life.

When I went into work, and came across some barriers, it was a bit of a shocker. There were times where I was blatantly ignored, even though I was the expert in the room, and my philosophy was: “Don’t get mad, just prove to them that you can help them and work with them.”

My way of working with my male colleagues was: “Okay, why are we doing this? Why do you want to do it that way?” I had to prove that I was good enough for the job.

But I’m positive that the best decisions an organisation can make for its future, and to be successful commercially and in society, is from having a diverse workforce. Not just in gender, but all forms of diversity, and a company that doesn’t do that will lose in the long run.