[Interview] - Power Electronics - Chris French

Posted 16/7/2019 by Georgina Deas

This week we’re talking to one of our very own Power Engineering contractors, Chris French. Chris is currently contracting as a Power Controls Engineer for our client, Faraday Grid. With extensive experience across Power Electronics, both academically and in industry, we thought we’d ask Chris about his career journey, what makes a successful contractor, and his advice and views on the Power Electronics industry.


Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I am a Principal Power Control System Design Engineer with 30+ years of experience, in both academia and industry. My experience spans across Power Control for motors, grid systems and renewables. I started off in the oil industry, and I worked on the drill floor; that was based in the Middle East. Following that, I worked my way through three degrees and through to my PhD, and I have subsequently worked for companies like Siemens and Rockwell.

Through my university career, I ended up working as a Senior Lecturer and I went on to set up what's now become part of the National Renewable Energy Centre. I, then, went back into industry and for the last 10 years or so I've been working for myself as a consultant and as a traditional contractor.


Why did you decide to start contracting?

I wanted the freedom to be able to work at the coalface of technology, rather than being in a managerial role.


What do you think makes a successful contractor?

I put contracting into two boxes. First of all, you have a traditional contractor who goes to a place and just does the job, does what they are told. The second one is contracting as a consultancy, which is what my experience is. Contracting as a consultancy benefits the company more; you do the tasks that you've been asked to do, but you also give the company advice in terms of the best way to do that task as well. You're able to add more value that way, rather than just doing the job itself. In my mind, the successful contractors I've come across, operate on that basis, rather than just sitting in a box and do what they're told.

Good contractors are able to deliver and provide extra value. I find you are able to offer opinions that maybe permanent employees in the company wouldn't feel comfortable saying because they are worried about how it may affect their job.


What do you find to be the pros and cons of contracting/consulting over traditional permanent work?

I'd say the pro in terms of consultancy contract is that you are, in essence, able to work for yourself, which gives you flexibility. Another pro of contracting is that you can more easily get into start-up companies that are doing really exciting things; working for a start-up as a permanent employee could be considered a bit risky.

There's also the variety of work as well; I've worked on things from Airships to very strange Electric Vehicles, over the years, to doing X-ray Scanning Systems. It's the variety of stuff that you do, which adds a little value to the people you're working for as well, because you can cross fertilise from different industries.

The cons, I suppose, are that you aren't permanent. You are always looking over your shoulder for the next contract. Contracts are usually three to six months, with scope to extend. When you begin to get to that three-month mark, you do start looking around for what your next contract is going to be. It can actually be quite self-defeating as well because you can end up taking your eye off the ball and missing sight of what you're trying to achieve in your current contract. Like everything in life, it is a balance.


Why did you choose to go down the academic route instead of staying in industry?

I worked in industry for nearly 10 years before I went into academia. I was about 30 when I went to do my PhD, although I was employed as a researcher when I was doing my PhD. I went for my PhD because, at that time, I wanted a more in depth understanding of the technology that I was dealing with. I didn't go into my PhD wanting to become a lecturer, I went into it to do some interesting work "and oh, actually, I got PhD at the end of it", and it just so happened, that I was still there after nearly 20 years!


How did you fall into the lecturing then?

I was a Senior Researcher at the place I was working in and I've always said, if you have to explain things to people that don't understand some of the technology you’re working with, and you can't explain it to them, you probably don't know what you're doing! It was really an exercise to test myself; to prove to myself that I could actually do that; and by serendipity, I fell into lecturing.


How do you turn a Researcher into a highly valued employee in a commercial company?

Commercial companies need to be engaged with Researchers while they are still in University. It's a bit of push and pull in terms of activity. I think if you take somebody that's had the freedom to independently do what they want to do for three years, it's going to be difficult to keep them steered towards a particular target.

From my experience, the companies that tend to take Researchers from University into industry are the companies that have taken on graduates before. They know how to mentor these students at a steady pace, meaning they are supported and developed to focus on deliverable work.

When I was at university, I had the luxury (in some ways) that my work as a Researcher was industrial led. I worked for blue chip companies and it was all practically based. I think if you look at the wider engineering discipline, it is practically based and so Researchers need practical skills too.


What's your view of the power industry at the moment?

When we worked on building the Energy Centre back in 2000, I think I remember that we were at about 120% or 125% reserve capacity, which meant that we could lose power stations and there was the potential for major peaks in power throughout the UK. There were a number of different power stations that were beyond their expected lifetime, meaning they would start having less and less reserve capacity. At the moment, I don't think we have very much power reserved. If it's a nice windy day, we're probably okay in terms of generating power in the UK but in the midst of winter weather, then there are potentially problems for power generation.

I think, from a generation point of view, it's becoming quite vital that we look at different methods of technology for power generation, and also for improving the efficiency of how that power is distributed. We also need solutions for energy efficiency for the end-user, and that’s probably just as important as generating power. There's a lot of lip service paid to this, but it is vital in terms of saving companies and people money, and enabling that there's enough capacity in the grid. On top of that, there's the emerging electric vehicle industry, and all the strain on power system that will bring. It's quite a vital time and a very interesting time to be involved in all that.


How is the power of engineering industry changing?

Right now, if you look at the grid side of things, the average age of infrastructure is still over 45 years old, and yet, we're trying to put modern power electronics and control systems into that infrastructure, which is quite a big challenge. The risks of where we are right now is that the old knowledge is disappearing because the engineers that were involved in building that technology are getting older and retiring. It is an interesting time because people are starting to realise that they need to be trained in these systems, where it has been neglected before.


Can you tell us a bit about the responsibilities involved in some of your old roles, like Executive Director of the New Renewable Energy Centre?

In the New Renewable Energy Centre role, I co-wrote the original business plan for that centre, along with two others. I became the first director there but that then moulded into the Director of R&D. I had all the responsibilities that any Director would have in terms of commercial operation (even though was not for profit). I also had to balance that role with my academic work, which was a little bit of a challenge.

When I was Technical Lead for Power Systems at Carillion, I had about 45 engineers working for me. Even though was Technical Lead, I had line management responsibility for all those people. I had to build the team and structure it in such a way that I only had four people reporting to me, and ran a hierarchical structure as best I could.

Carillion was quite innovative in some ways, even though they're not around anymore. At the time, they had huge PFI contracts on loads and loads of public buildings and the price of solar PV was falling rapidly. The company, at that point in time, had been doing lots of social housing; I think it was the biggest provider of social housing, solar and energy efficiency systems in the country. It was huge, but they wanted to get into the commercial side of things in terms of renewables. My role was to create a business within a business that did commercial-scale solar PV. I used the fact that Carillion had all of these rooms and buildings to put solar on to help build that, which actually helped Carillion as they had to pay for the electricity bills most of the time. I also had to talk to investors in London to finance the solar projects. When the government tariffs and subsidies were changed, the financial model of that change quite rapidly, that was back in

2011. At this point, Carillion believed they couldn't make it work anymore so they pulled the plug on the whole program. I put up a proposal forward to say we can make it work, we just needed bigger solar farms, but Carillion didn't agree or want to take on the project. Now there are lots of much larger solar farms; I think Carillion had much bigger worries that have recently come to light though! After this, I ended up working for one of the big investment companies for a while, and that's how I started consultancy.


Can you tell us about the most interesting or challenging projects that you've worked?

The most exciting thing I had to do was within 10 months. We were tasked building an electric vehicle from the ground up, including all the software for the motor control systems, with the battery system, how to drive the vehicle, everything! We were driving it around to demonstrate to the customer within 10 months. That was the most exciting and challenging but it was also a bit scary! It was a three and a half tonne 4X4 vehicle, built outside of the UK.


What advice would you offer people trying to get into the Power Electronics industry?

The Power Electronics industry is mushrooming, it's so exciting. Don't think it's boring, because it's not. Don't believe half of what you're told in terms of where technology really is; it is usually a few steps behind. However, some of the things that Power Electronics is being applied to now is really quite exciting. It's being put in places where, even 10 years ago, it would not have been possible or allowed to be put there, for example, in the grid.

I've worked on things from little six-kilowatt converter power controllers using power electronics for solar or little solar systems, to things that are 80 megawatts on ships. There's such a range of things to do in Power Electronics. It is everywhere and it's one of those things that once you actually get into the technology, you realise what it can do and you can do some very good things with it. If you get into a good company, of which there are loads throughout the UK, you're guaranteed to be working on some pretty interesting projects.

As a contractor/consultant, you can do anything you want to do really, right now. Not that this will be happening any time soon, but if I finish where I am contracting now, I can sit back and say to myself, ‘what do I want to do next?’ There are not many engineering areas that you can say that but you can for Power Electronics because there's such a huge demand. It's unbelievable. The advice I’d give people wanting to do Electronics consultancy is don't be afraid, there are jobs are out there. If you've got a good reputation, you can negotiate great rates. You can get paid good money to do something you enjoy; you can't get much better than that!


Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the Emerging and Enabling Technology industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, and software in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on 0131 510 8150


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