Meet The Women Transforming Northern Ireland’s Energy System

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Saturday 11 February 2023 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The theme for the day this year is how women contribute towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include ambitions such as a desire for clean, affordable energy, climate action and sustainable cities and communities.

To mark the day, we spoke to some of the women in SONI who are transforming Northern Ireland’s power system to make it fit for a more sustainable future about their career and what advice they would give to other women and girls thinking about working in science and energy.

Emma Morris is SONI’s System Operational Manager.

“I grew up hearing things like ‘Teaching is a great job for a woman….’ but other than during a brief spell at primary school it wasn’t of interest to me.  A real love for Maths throughout school and an almost OCD need for a logical and methodical approach to everything did not go unnoticed by my brother.  An engineer himself, he suggested I consider a career in engineering and a few years later I found myself in the Ashby Building of Queen’s University embarking on a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.”

Having started with SONI in 2006, Emma manages SONI’s control centre in Belfast which is at the heart of how the organisation manages the supply and demand of energy across Northern Ireland.

“I entered into engineering not really sure of what to expect but happy that I had a natural mathematical ability and a career in engineering that would allow me to use it.  It was really only when I began my career in SONI that I realised I had chosen the right career path and within weeks of starting I was fascinated with the electricity industry and the challenges we face.  The power industry has transformed since I started my career in 2006 and it has provided me with exactly what I wanted – an opportunity to work in a sector that is challenging enough to ensure it never gets boring.  The real time nature of the work that I’m involved in means it is fast paced and exciting and I genuinely love what I do every day."

Reflecting on this year’s theme on the contribution of women to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, she added:

“At SONI, we want to transform the power system for future generations and this is fundamental in helping to support the sustainable development goals.  Our ability to manage renewable energy on an island system is already world leading but we aren’t stopping there – we have even more ambitious target to meet by 2030, ensuring we are playing our part in combating climate change and its impacts.”

Thinking about the advice she would give to other women and girls about a career in science, engineering and energy, she said:

“Just go for it.  There is so much going on in the world of energy at the minute as a sector which is going to change the world and it’s opening up opportunities everywhere.  I do hope the days of women not considering a career in energy and science are behind us and as I look around SONI, I am delighted to see a steady stream of extremely capable female graduates joining the ranks.” 

Catriona Kelly, Rebecca Russell and Francesca McKee are Engineers in SONI’s Graduate Programme. They each studied science and energy-related degrees at university.

“I got into engineering because I loved physics and maths in school and was always interested in learning how things work”, said Catriona.

For Francesca, it was an interest in the environment and her desire to play her part in tackling climate change.

“Growing up I always enjoyed breaking things to find out how they worked and functioned (but not always putting them back together). A career in STEM appealed to me because of the problem solving – coming across a problem and working out an efficient solution was always very satisfying for me and a career in engineering allowed me to develop this skill.”, added Rebecca.

Francesca talked about her role in SONI’s infrastructure team.

“In Infrastructure Projects our work helps meet a number of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals such as affordable and clean energy – managing projects to be upgrades and new projects help support the grid to be able to create affordable and clean energy by introducing more renewables into the grid.”

Supporting Emma in the Systems Operations Team, Catriona highlighted the importance of ensuring a steady and secure supply of energy in creating sustainable communities and energy infrastructure that was fit for the future.

When discussing their advice to other women thinking about their careers, the three graduates all agreed that more needed to be done to make science and engineering an appealing option to girls when they are at school.

“If you feel passionate go for it! From Primary school level it should be more education about careers in engineering using female role models to show younger girls they can work there too!”, insisted Francesca.

Rebecca added:

“My biggest advice is to realise that at some points you might be the only woman in a team but this is not a bad thing. Realise that you may have a unique point of view on the situation and that your different experiences may lead to a different solution to the problem. Don’t be afraid to speak voice your opinion or question as everyone is continuously learning and developing.”

Alicia Trainor is a Project Manager at SONI. A graduate in environmental planning, Alicia is responsible for coordinating with colleagues across the organisation to ensure the successful completion of SONI’s infrastructure

“I always had an interest in the environment and social sciences so planning was a perfect choice for further study.

In addition to the more environmental and climate action goals, Alicia highlighted SONI’s role in the fundamental link between environment and infrastructure.

“Upgrading the existing electricity infrastructure with innovative technologies while expanding the industry with new developments is vital for increasing the capacity for renewable energy generation and therefore reducing reliance on fossil fuels”, she added.

Like Francesca, Alicia felt a personal commitment to doing her bit to tackle climate change.

“I have always been passionate about the environment and while I try to do my best in my personal life to reduce by carbon footprint, I felt the best way to contribute to the global climate ambition was through a career in science and engineering with a focus on the energy sector. It’s very rewarding to see how the projects I manage contribute to the increase in renewable energy generation and through forward planning, I can clearly see the path to our net Zero carbon future.”

Alicia was keen to dispel the myth that you could only work in science and energy if that was your focus in school or university.

“I would say that its not too late at any stage of life to enter into energy, engineering or science if that’s a new route you want to go down. I know of many people who started in various different industries that were interested in renewable energy and technology who found their way into a career in that field. There are plenty of opportunities if you actively seek them out and show passion.

Alicia highlighted the impact that a strong network of peers and role models can play in encouraging women to progress to senior levels in the sector.

“In my 8 years in the industry, I have built up a strong network of peers who help me and I help them so building relationships with colleagues and like-minded individuals can be a strong tool in career progression. The more women we have in influential roles, the more role models there are for other women so encouraging colleagues to apply and strive for roles is a good way to encourage others.”