Energy System Integration, Smart Sector Integration, Sector Coupling: no matter what you call it, it is extremely promising but needs skilled electrical installers, or ‘integrators’


What is clear is that our world is changing. This was the case in 2019 as European youths were marching in our capitals protesting against the lack of climate action and public opinion momentum gathered during an EU election year. Towards the end of the year, a ground-breaking and widely encompassing EU Green Deal was released, that would push climate to the top of political agendas. Prior to that the Gilets Jaunes marked European opinions about social justice, fuelling the “Just Transition” approach that is now ubiquitous. And now, we are in a crisis that has rocked our continent to an extent unseen since WWII, with curfews, lockdown measures, and sky-rocketing Zoom subscriptions. While this is not news, the way the electrical contracting sector is transforming along these changes might not be common knowledge.

Electrical contractors and their employees have been around for a long time but their work has certainly evolved in those years. Starting with basic electrical work, matching the type of installations using electricity at the time, they have now grown to tackle the most advanced modern-day installations, entailing a high level of digitalisation. This evolution has not come about instantly but has followed the availability of increasingly integrated and digital clean energy technologies. While energy transition and digitalisation have been featuring in public debates for a while now, it is only in the past few years that they have really reached the top.

The Green Deal capitalised on this unprecedented momentum towards climate action to put forward new measures aimed at transforming our energy system accordingly. While revising Clean Energy Package or clean transport (AFID / TEN-T) legislation is not new per se, they should now be reviewed according to new strategies and orientations that arose in the Green Deal and the overarching goal of Europe to become climate-neutral by 2050.

The Renovation Wave was planned as a tool to at least double the rate of energy renovations across Europe within the next 10 years and has now been released with references to Directives on Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency or Energy Performance of Buildings. The idea is to reduce energy consumption but also to better integrate buildings with our energy systems, while alleviating energy poverty and fostering a Just Transition.

The System Integration Strategy goes to the core of what this article addresses: integration. Turning to the Energy Efficiency First principle of the EU, it aims to link sectors and systems for better efficiency and circularity. And we all know efficiency means electrification. In fact, the EU document upholds electrification as a key pathway to reducing emissions and ensuring the resilience of our energy system. Further it specifically points to electric vehicles and electric heat pumps as examples of electrification in the sense of sector/system integration.

And this is where it gets interesting for electrical contractors. Integration is truly what has underpinned the evolutions and changes we have outlined here. Electric devices are not new, but the way we use and install them has changed considerably. Thanks to digital tools, smart management and interoperation of these devices unlocks new synergies, efficiencies and outright quality of living for users.

Electric heating is not a new concept but a smart heating system, integrated with on- or off-site renewable power capacity can absorb excess electricity and heat the house only when it is the most desirable, without the user having to worry about anything, except for lower (and possibly negative) energy bills. This Power-to-Heat concept also translates to the mobility needs. With Vehicle-to-Grid, EVs can store excess energy to be used later for driving or be fed back into the house, again working with renewable energy systems and lowering energy bills.

These concepts address the climate needs as set out in the Green Deal, lower costs as per Just Transition ideals, and improve indoor life quality which we have all learned to appreciate during lockdowns. But there is also tremendous growth potential, linking all these three elements, the Green Deal as the EU’s new growth agenda, quality employment for all levels of qualifications, and a perfect answer to economic recovery questions.

There is one hitch: such integrated systems require electrical professionals that have updated their skillsets to be able to efficiently tackle these cutting-edge technologies and make the most of their efficiency potential. While this is a great business opportunity for electrical contractors, leading to significant job creation and increasing local added value, public authorities have a role to play in supporting first movers and creating a fertile ground for this new area of activity to soar.

Predictability is key to motivate electrical contracting SMEs to invest in the skills of their employees and branch out into these new areas. To this end, the EU has promised minimum energy performance standards for buildings, an enhanced Energy Performance Certificate legislation, or an optional Smart Readiness Indicator scheme but it is up to national actors to further provide more specific norms and targeted incentives, sustainable in the longer-term, necessary to support contractor SMEs.

More specifically, electrical contractors or installers are in a paradigm shift leading them towards becoming electrical integrators. This means that they will follow the above-mentioned evolutions and carry out more complex and digital tasks, leading to tangible energy savings.

This shift is paramount to the energy transition and must be supported by public authorities with carefully updated curricula, where industry and social partners can provide the market intelligence all the more necessary with fast-paced technological innovation. Crucially, this will have to be followed by well-funded up- and re-skilling strategies meant for current workers but also new entrants, such as from regions in transition or to increase the share of women. Finally, more needs to be done on the image of technical education and careers, which are unfavourable perceived by prospective students but also by their parents, compared to academia. With the current job potential and growth potential, such career paths should benefit from awareness campaigns, highlighting the green, digital and quality (good wages, working conditions and prospects) aspects of electric contracting.

With the right public support, our sector can provide answers to several questions that have become increasingly salient recently, contributing to climate gaols, with cheaper utility bills, and more and better jobs.