What’s it like to work in renewables? With Fiona Thomson from NnG Offshore Wind

NnG is a new offshore wind farm project being developed off the coast of Fife in Scotland. It’ll generate enough zero-carbon electricity for around 375,000 homes. And will offset over 400,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.

Fiona Thomson is OFTO Manager for NnG and she works with the Operations and Maintenance team to get the wind farm ready for operations. We caught up with Fiona during lockdown to find out exactly what an OFTO Manager does, and why NnG is such a hugely important project for Scotland both now – during its construction – and in the future, when it’s up and running.

 

Day-to-day working life in renewables

Q. Where are you right now?
A. I’m at home, just outside Edinburgh. I used to spend about three days a week in our Edinburgh project office – in the same building as EDF Renewables – with the remainder of my time working from home. But since the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve been working from home full time. I miss the company of everyone in the office, but a more flexible approach to working really helps with my ‘work/life’ balance.

Q. What does your job as OFTO Manager for NnG involve?
A. OFTO is a slightly unusual concept and it’s specific to offshore wind legislation in the UK. In short, once an offshore windfarm is built, the owner is not allowed to own the generating station (turbines) and the transmission assets (the substations, which you can see out at sea – along with the cables that transport the electricity to shore and connect the wind farm to the National Grid).

The OFTO part of my job title refers to the offshore transmission assets at NnG. My role is to prepare the project for selling the transmission assets after they’re built – which is usually within 18 months of operation.

You tend to only have an OFTO Manager on a big offshore project – like NnG. I sit within the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) team, as I work closely with the legal, financial and operation teams. For example, the lawyers oversee all the paperwork for the sale. But it’s my responsibility to make sure we have everything in place to maintain the assets, so we hand them over in good working order.


Offshore construction has begun at NnG – image courtesy of Saipem

 

Q. What’s a typical day like for you?
A. My day-to-day role is interpreting plans and legislation relevant to the project, and managing lots of stakeholders:

  • Working with engineers to keep design decisions in line with the regulations for the OFTO sale;
  • Working with lawyers on the paperwork;
  • Looking at the commercial elements of the sale and longer term relationship with the OFTO owner;
  • Planning for the practical operation of the site: from monitoring of structures, to performance of turbines and storage of equipment.

 

I’ll usually work from 8.30am to 5-6pm, depending on how busy I am. I always try and get through my emails first thing in the morning – and catch up with anything I haven’t finished the day before. But then my schedule depends on what’s going on at any given moment; there’s no ‘standard’ day as such.

I might be working on forward planning; reviewing tender responses as we get closer to operations; talking to suppliers; working on site; or reviewing policy and its implications for the project. It’s a very variable job, which is what I love most about it.

 

Routes into employment in renewables

Q. Had you worked in OFTO before?
A. My previous role was Head of Business Development and Marketing at a renewable energy consultancy. So I had wide-ranging experience of the renewables industry, but this was generally focused on managing contracts for consultancy services.

When the OFTO regime came in, we started to provide third-party maintenance and operation services to help offshore wind farm projects prepare for the sale of their offshore transmission assets. I built up that part of the business and it was my introduction to the OFTO world.

It’s not an area of renewables that many people are familiar with – and there aren’t many people with experience in this area. NnG is the first OFTO project for EDF Renewables, so when I was looking for a move, a mutual colleague made an introduction as they needed an OFTO manager for NnG. Since taking up the role in 2019, I have worked with the Development team on the early preparation for the sale. More recently, I have transferred to the O&M team to focus on the preparation for operations.

Q. Have you always specialised in offshore wind?
A. At the consultancy, I worked on onshore projects, a little bit of solar and some hydro projects. But offshore wind was always where my interest was – and where I got my first taste of renewables.

Q. What was your route into the industry?
A. I graduated in 2007 with a management studies degree, just before the big recession hit in 2008. So I made the decision to build up my experience in the public sector for a few years. Fife Council was developing the Fife Energy Park at the time, and many local manufacturing companies were diversifying from oil and gas into renewables. 

Even back then, it felt like an exciting industry to work in – and it gave me the direction I needed in my career. I remember going to a RenewableUK conference around 2009 or 2010, and it had a carnival-like atmosphere! There was such a buzz about it and renewables felt like a really dynamic environment to work in. I loved it and thought, ‘I want to be a part of this.’

A few years later, I moved to renewables consultancy. Offshore wind was always my main area of interest and I enjoy the stakeholder side of things, so operations and asset management is my happy place. I can’t imagine working in any other industry now.

Q. How is your position at NnG different to your previous roles?
A. My role with NnG is much more hands on. Being dedicated to one project lets me get far more involved in the delivery. Coming from a consultancy background, I was involved in projects happening all over world, of all types and sizes, and in different sectors. I never really got into the nuts and bolts of anything. So I feel far more embedded in this project. And the benefit of my consultancy background is that I can draw on experience from previous projects whenever a challenge or issue arises.

 

Diversity and inclusion in renewables

Q. Do you think the industry could do more to promote diversity and inclusion?
A. Compared to some industries, renewables is more forward thinking in its approach to diversity and inclusion. But there’s still a long way to go. There aren’t many women working in technical roles, like mine, for instance, so it would be great to see more women in these positions. We need to create a supportive environment to allow everyone to reach their full potential.

EDF Renewables is doing great things to be more inclusive, with its family-friendly policies, women’s network and ‘everyone’s welcome’ campaign. And my experience of working here has been great. I’ve never felt out of place as a woman or that there are any barriers to my career progression.

As I’ve moved up to a more senior level, I feel a responsibility to make the industry more accessible to others. I spoke at a STEM event last year to promote engineering roles (even though I’m not an engineer). And I got the impression from a lot of the girls at the event that they had a real hunger to pursue a career they care about; sustainability is a big driver for the next generation in their career choices. And the more we can nurture that attitude, the better it’ll be for everyone.

 

Breaking into the renewables industry

Q. What would you say to anyone interested in a career in renewables? 
A. I would encourage anyone into a career in this sector. It’s a dynamic industry that’s making both an environmental and economic impact.

Q. What kind of skills do you need in your job?
A. The core of everything I do is stakeholder management: we are constantly balancing the needs and demands of investors, government, engineers, contractors and the public. To do this, it helps to understand what drives people. I come from a sales background, so the two fit together nicely. But if you understand what drives somebody – whether an investor, contractor, policy maker or planner – you can find a way to make it work so that everyone comes out of a negotiation feeling that they got what they wanted. It’s probably not a skill that’s widely recognised, but having this kind of emotional intelligence or empathy is so important in my role.

It also helps to have a bit of technical understanding – and being able to communicate technical aspects of the project to a non-technical person, in an easy-to-understand way. I’ve even resorted to drawing pictures at times! Sometimes you have to think about the simplest way to communicate a technical concept. And being able to do this effectively is a valuable skill.

Q. And what about your organisation skills?
A. My line manager said to me the other day that he’s never worked with anyone before who plans like I do. I plan everything to the nth degree! I’m very much a ‘big picture’ person. So I have to plan the detail to understand how we’ll get there.

Q. What’s your favourite part of your job?
A. I love it when we work on team strategy. There is a lot of thinking required at this stage in the project and we regularly sit down in our team with a pile of challenges and end the day with a PLAN! I find that really satisfying; you really feel like you’ve achieved something when you end up with a consensus.

We bounce off each other a lot in the team. Everyone brings different experiences, so we really draw on each other’s expertise. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve been able to carry on doing this using Microsoft Teams. The other day, we did a full review of tenders this way – reviewing documents and commenting on them together – and it was like we were sat next to each other.

The other part of my job that can be really rewarding is dealing with stakeholders. For instance, when we announced that we were looking at Eyemouth as an Operations & Maintenance base, a local supplier came up to me and said, ‘This opportunity is like being given the Olympics,’”. That’s really rewarding to hear.


This is an artist's impression of the new Operations and Maintenance building, which will be built in Eyemouth

 

Q. And what about your least favourite?
A. There are a lot of documents to review at the moment. And it’s obviously a very important part of the job to understand the impacts on operation and maintenance. But it can be a bit of a slog and I usually have to lock myself away for a few days, without much interaction, to get through everything.

 

The role of renewables in achieving Net Zero

Q. How are you helping Britain achieve Net Zero?
A. Over the past 12 years, I have become passionate about the huge role offshore wind can play in the energy mix and in the green recovery. I love offshore wind and it’s the sector that I have always believed can make the most impact to clean energy production in the UK, due to the availability of wind resource and maturity of the sector.

The work I do directly – understanding the industry and supply chains for operation and maintenance – is important to the sustainability of the sector. I have done a lot of work with supply chain clusters and policy makers to bring a ‘practical’ understanding of offshore wind operations to the table. And this could directly influence how the industry looks in the future. Building a supply chain is rewarding too, as you are helping to build a local industry.

 

Future developments

Q. Which areas of innovation in offshore wind are you most excited about?
A. I specialise in operations and maintenance, so the optimisation of assets is a big area of interest. There are things you can do with turbines – whether that’s through retrofitting them once they’re operational or planning it into the design – to get the most from them or extend their life.

For instance: preventative maintenance to make sure the turbines are working as efficiently as possible. There’s a lot of really interesting R&D and academic force behind initiatives like these, as they can make a lot of difference without significant effort. 

From a more practical point of view, innovation is helping the industry become safer all the time. And any future research or innovations that make our work safer –especially offshore – can only be a good thing.

Q. Is there anything you’ve not done yet in your career that you’d like to?
A. Everything I’ve done until now in my career has been very commercial or led by stakeholder management. But my role now at NnG involves supporting operations, and I need to understand the technical workings of a wind farm in greater detail. So the next steps for me are training around the engineering side.

I am also about to do all of my offshore training (eek!). So I’ll be getting training in working at heights and sea survival… all the really glamorous stuff! It’s not something I ever thought I’d need to do – and boats don’t massively agree with me! But it means I’ll be able to escort visitors out to the site or substations as we approach the sell down. So it’s an important part of my role. I just hope my sea legs hold up for the travel time out to site!

 

Does working in renewables appeal to you? If you’re interested in joining us in an operations or development role, register your interest on our EDF Careers page. Or follow us on LinkedIn to get more of an insight into day-to-day working life in renewables.