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Energy and utilities in Australia: an overview

Peter Nicholls

The energy industry is responsible for the production and distribution of energy, water, and gas across Australia.

Overview

It overlaps considerably with the utility industry, which is responsible for the infrastructure used to provide public services (dams, sewerage systems, power lines, stormwater drains, and so on).

Consequently, this is the sector that includes employers such as Sydney Water, Integral Energy, Suez Waste Management, and SA Power Networks. Together, energy and utility companies have created about 155,000 jobs for electrical engineers, civil engineers, chemical engineers, and many other professionals.  

In the coming decades, it’s expected that this sector will change considerably as it faces three main challenges: increasing demand for renewable energy sources, a growing need to invest in Australia’s energy infrastructure, and the pressure to adapt to new policies and public expectations as private and public organisations respond to environmental changes.

What’s involved?

Energy industry workers have a range of responsibilities, from laying pipes and maintaining water infrastructure to reading meters and providing customer service. Broadly speaking, their tasks fall into three categories—electricity generation, transmission, and distribution; natural gas distribution; and water, sewerage, and other systems (such as reservoirs and treatment plants).

As demand for it grows, many professionals in this sector are involved in efforts to create cheaper and more sustainable sources of energy, water and gas. Latest annual data by the Department of the Environment and Energy shows Australia’s energy consumption has risen 1.1 per cent, up from the average annual growth of 0.8 per cent over the last decade. This rise puts energy consumption at 6,146 petajoules. For comparison, one petajoule represents enough energy to power 19,000 homes or 2,354,000 televisions for a year.

In a bid to address this, engineers and environmental scientists in this industry are involved in initiatives such as generating power from solar and biogas conversion (a process that involves capturing the methane produced by vegetative waste before converting it into energy).

Where do people in the energy and utility sector work?

Workers in the energy industry may find themselves employed at different points of the energy supply chain, which involves generators (for example, power plants and wind farms), transmission networks (such as gas lines and facilities that convert low voltage electricity into high voltage electricity that can travel further), distribution networks (which convert the electricity back to a low-voltage consumer product), and retail providers, ending with the businesses and residences that use energy.

Accordingly, work in this energy sector might be based in an office (for example, managing customer accounts) or in the field, performing maintenance on distribution networks or other infrastructure.

Entering the energy sector

The energy sector is dominated by people who have completed some sort of vocational education and training. For example, Bachelor degrees and Advanced Diplomas are possessed by some 34% of plant operators, while a Bachelor degree is mandatory for engineers and environmental scientists.

There are various pathways into the energy industry, including graduate programs for both private employers and public entities (such as the federal Department of Environment and Energy). The government’s graduate program extends for 16 months and involves rotations in four different departments, with flexible working arrangements and relocation assistance for interstate applicants.

Private employers with graduate programs in the energy sector include Energy Australia, SA Power Networks, Bid Energy, Nova Systems, TasNetworks, and Viva Energy Australia.

Career prospects

The future of Australia’s energy industry, and the workers which support it is an issue of national concern. Thankfully, the outlook is good: the government notes that growth in the numbers of most energy workers will be ‘stable’, ‘moderate’, or ‘strong’.

Interestingly, much of this growth, for now, is expected to be generated by traditional employers (such as coal-based power companies). While alternatives such as solar energy and wind power are growing in popularity, the government notes that employment in large scale solar and wind power is primarily driven by installation activity, rather than by ongoing operation and maintenance. Consequently, it relies heavily on the creation of new infrastructure, making it relatively volatile.

Pros and cons

What makes the energy and utility sector an appealing sector to young graduates? What might cause them to reconsider? We asked graduates who were successful at securing positions at leading energy and utility companies, and this is what they said.

Pros

Varied work tasks

The range of responsibilities in the energy and utility sector makes it possible for graduates to enjoy exposure to various departments before settling on a defined career path.

A Sydney graduate now working for the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) reported that he enjoyed a “good mix of projects” with “vastly different day-to-day” responsibilities. “This role allows me to see how different business units within AEMO interact,” he said, “and also how AEMO interacts with external stakeholders.”

Flexible working hours

Many graduates report that employers in this sector are open to flexible working arrangements, allowing them to more easily achieve a healthy work/life balance. For example, a Tasmanian graduate now employed by TasNetworks wrote that “the company allows me to work from 7:00-3:00 (rather than 9:00-5:00)—this works out much better for me on a daily basis and allows me to spend more time with my family and gives me enough time to stay fit and active.”