22 Jun 2021 .

Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day at Natural Power

Valerie Marquis, senior project engineer – turbine technology

What is your background and how did you come to be a senior project engineer? 

My educational background is in mechanical engineering. I worked as a test engineer, first at Caterpillar and then at DNV, for about 10 years before moving to management and directorial positions. I’ve done extensive field work, including climbing turbines and met masts, and managed HSEQ systems, including ISO and GWO certifications. When applying for the senior project engineer (turbine tech) role, I wanted to take the experience I’d gained throughout my career and also have the opportunity to learn and grow in a new direction. It’s been a wonderful position: I’ve learned a lot (with a lot more still to learn!), and I’ve really loved being a part of the Natural Power team! 

What does your role as senior project engineer entail? 

My role as a senior project engineer is specific to turbine technology.  I support our clients (typically banks or other investors) in assessing the risk to existing or in-development projects that may stem from the actual turbines. Some things I look at are whether any of the major components have known operational issues; what is the lightning risk or risk due to other extreme events (e.g. tornadoes, tropical storms, blowing dust, etc.); how is performance being assessed following commercial operations beginning; and are the turbines suitable for the site based on the design and site-specific conditions?

What projects have been the most challenging/rewarding for you so far? 

The most challenging projects are the Independent Engineering (IE) projects where we take a much deeper dive into the technology, and I am tasked with the risk determination. The most rewarding projects are those where I’m able to find some nugget that no one else has found or when I’m really able to bring value to our clients based on my contributions. I also really like being able to do field work because it’s something I’ve done my whole career, and I am able to be somewhat of a leader in this aspect of our work.

Was there one particular moment/event that led you into a career in engineering?  

Yes. When I was about 20 years old, I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life (more broadly than just education and career). During a car ride with my dad, we were talking about what I wanted to do, and I blurted out “It’s not like I could be an engineer.” My dad was an engineer at Caterpillar for 43 years, and despite my lifelong love of math and science and trying to figure out how things work, I had always seen engineering as something that was for people smarter than me. He very genuinely responded that of course I could be an engineer and that I was every bit as smart as anyone he worked with. I went home, looked up what it meant to be a mechanical engineer, what school would entail, and started taking my prerequisites the next semester. School was certainly challenging, but I’ve loved the career in wind energy that I’ve been able to have a result of that moment.

This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is Engineering Heroes. Who are your engineering heroes and why? 

I don’t really have women in engineering that I’d call “heroes,” but I definitely have women who I’ve looked up to and who have been mentors and inspiration to me over the years. Our own Holly Burnett (senior vice president) was the first woman I met when interviewing for my first wind energy job, and she’s someone I’ve looked up to ever since. Additionally, my friends Alex Byrne (also a turbine technology expert) and Stefanie Bourne (an expert in wind energy development) are two women who have been both inspirational and also very supportive as I’ve progressed through my career. And my dad, who not only inspired me to start on this path but helped with homework during school, proofread cover letters during job applications, and has been a sounding board as I worked through management issues in previous roles.

Louise Waters, renewable heat engineer

What is your background, and how did you come to work on renewable heat projects?

One way of looking at my career prior to joining Natural Power is as a process of exploration. I applied myself to some quite different roles within the realm of sustainable energy: first, I analysed and designed industrial energy systems as a graduate engineer. Next, I carried out and communicated research around the theme of energy in international development, which took me from rural villages in Bangladesh to the United Nations building in Washington DC. Most recently, I worked as a consultant for community energy projects here in the UK. At the end of all that, I felt like I had completed a triangle of different roles and settled somewhere in the middle with Natural Power. That’s not to say it’s a cosy compromise – this centring down has let me bring together what I learnt from the other three roles and spend more of my time doing what I am good at. Renewable heat is the area I want to be working in because I see heat decarbonisation as the great engineering challenge of the 2020s for the UK and similar countries. If we don’t stop burning enormous quantities of natural gas to keep ourselves warm and power our industrial processes, we will fail to end our contribution to climate change.

What does your role as a renewable heat engineer entail?

I do the background work that enables organisations to make good decisions about decarbonising their heat use and answering questions: how much energy will be generated? What are the capital and operating costs? What are the practical implications for the occupants or managers of the building or facility concerned? What risks need to be known about and dealt with? Sometimes I am contributing to the design of a renewable heat system or finding solutions to specific problems. Through these activities, I apply myself to projects involving quite different heat generation and distribution technologies: heat pumps, biomass, waste heat recovery and heat networks, to name a few.

What projects have been the most challenging/rewarding for you so far?

A challenging project has involved trying to find a sustainable energy solution for a new industrial activity on a small Scottish island. Many of the usual renewable energy technologies are impossible to deliver there at the moment due to some insurmountable constraints on the local electricity network and the narrow range of suppliers who will deliver fuels to that location. However, there is light on the horizon when we look a few years into the future: it’s a promising location for the development of local green hydrogen supply and distribution, which won’t be easy to pull off but could offer some compelling benefits over the alternatives

Was there one particular moment/event that led you into a career in engineering?

In part thanks to a school teacher who seeded the idea in my head and encouraged me to go to an open day for the engineering department at my nearest university, I studied Mechanical Engineering at university. It came across as more fun than the physics department, and I could more easily imagine how I could make a difference in the world through engineering than through pure science.

This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is Engineering Heroes. Who are your engineering heroes and why?

Wallace and Gromit (from the animated films) are a brilliant engineering team. Wallace comes up with the grand concepts, and to be fair to him, he does execute them, but he hasn’t thought through all the ways they could go wrong. When malfunctions start to mount up, Gromit makes those crucial adjustments and/or emergency actions that save the day. According to Wikipedia, Gromit has an engineering degree, so I think he counts as an engineering hero!

Jennifer Crilly, renewable heat engineer 

What is your background and what does being a renewable heat engineer entail? 

I started working at Natural Power in January 2021, and I’ve already been involved in a lot of projects. The first was to find a heating solution to dry seaweed on the island of Vatersay, and we’re still working on that project. You’re going in even before feasibility, and it’s a lot of research finding new solutions for drying things. I’ve been involved in the solar PV feasibility to power air source heat pumps which supply the heating to a school in the Highlands. I’ve recently finished a project at a renewable energy plant where I project managed alternative fuel solutions, as they burn straw and woodchip CHP to generate heat and power, fuel shortages meant that olive pellets were proposed to be introduced into the system. My boss did the original design work, and I was project managing the onsite works, getting things getting put into place and working within timeline and budget and following through with how much is being burned and the success rate of the fuel.  

We’re also involved in Scottish Policy. We get invited to discuss items with Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) and Scottish Renewables to put in our input on how we see the future of renewable heat in Scotland and the UK. No two days are ever the same.  

I graduated with a chemical engineering degree in 2013, and I worked in oil and gas for three years as a process engineer for one of the UK’s largest gas production platforms. That was one week a month offshore doing production support and doing the work on the EU emissions trading schemes (EU ETS) applications, their energy saving opportunities and how to improve production. You get involved in the gas processing a lot, and there’s a lot of compression, separation, flow through pipes, etc. It was very much what we studied at university put into action. 

Chemical engineers are problem solvers: we get taught theory and “you have this problem, now go and work it out”. Renewable heat is a newer thing than gas. Nobody knowns how to fix the problems yet, and it’s a lot cheaper to put gas into a pipeline and heat your house. You’re fighting economics all the time. You’re basically waiting on the government putting in legislation that you have to do something. In the next five years things will take off, but as an industry we are not there yet.  

What projects have been the most challenging/rewarding for you so far?  

The most rewarding has been the working with heat networks, they have proven their worth elsewhere in Europe and are more likely to get developed. From this role, I would say that the alternative fuel trial with the olive pellets at the straw-fired plant being a success was very rewarding, and at the moment, they’re burning really well. Taking that and handing it over in the three months I worked on it was a great experience as was watching it run and working with the team and people who are interested in making something work. With climate change, the UK won’t always have a big straw harvest every year, so we have to start thinking about how “renewable” biomass is, which is taken for granted, and think about what else should the industry be doing. Olive pellets coming over from Spain is a temporary solution, and people are working together to focus their attention on alternative solutions to focus on sustainability. Also, anything to do with geothermal is rewarding. We have this great opportunity in the UK to explore renewable heat, and it’s great to be a part of it.  

The most challenging [projects] are the ones you care about that will probably never see the light of day because it is cheaper to put in a gas boiler. While it’s still legal to put in a gas boiler, you can’t compete financially.  

Was there a particular moment or event that made you want to pursue this career? 

The simple answer is that I was good at maths and liked chemistry, and I knew chemical engineers made money if they worked in oil and gas. I also did a five-day event called GirlsGetSET (Science, Engineering and Technology), where they put us up at Heriot-Watt university halls and invited us to take part in projects, building things and looking at engines. It was very much a girls get set for engineering. It was at the beginning of STEM, which I’m not sure was really a thing back then.  

I got involved in STEM and was an ambassador for a while when I worked in Aberdeen and worked with schoolkids, who were much more intelligent than me and had all these amazing solutions. I also became involved in whynotChemEng, where you went to schools and explained what a chemical engineer does and how it was different to mechanical and civil engineers. They’re both fantastic initiatives, but we didn’t have enough of them. When I was at school, I’d never even heard of engineering until I heard it from my sister’s friend who was going to do chemical engineering, and then the GirlsGetSET opportunity came up. There were five of us from school involved, and I think I’m only one who’s an engineer.  

You look at my intake at university for chemical engineering, and it had 150 people with 40 who were female, but only a handful  of those graduated with a master’s. A lot of them dropped out after the first year because it was competitive and male focused, and the boys didn’t want to work with you. Three years below me it was 50/50. The work done by STEM, by whynotchemeng and IChemE has helped push that and I believe it’s why it has become more popular. 

This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is Engineering Heroes. Who are your engineering heroes and why?  

This is a hard question! The MD at the company that I previously worked at took all the female graduates in during our first week and sat us down and told us inspiring stories about how she got stuff done and how difficult it was as a woman. She made it seem really cool to be a strong, female engineer. I also had two female bosses in Aberdeen who were great and inspiring. They’d worked really hard to get where they were, and they really put themselves out there and made changes. It was those three people who inspired me to stand out a bit more for things. But when I was younger, it was definitely my sister’s friend who was going to become an engineer. I’ve been lucky to have strong female role models in my life, whether in engineering or not! 

Further reading

21 May 2020 . Natural Power

Natural Power bolsters renewable heat team

12 June 2020

If we are to have a planet that is habitable for future generations, we should be decarbonising a city the size of Sheffield every 16 weeks.

4 March 2021

International Women's Day 2021 at Natural Power