Powerful cause: Interview with Terence Watson, chairman of PowerelectronicsUK

3 min read

Ask Terence Watson about power electronics and you're left in no doubt of his opinion. "It's one of the most important technical components for the UK's future. It's a technology that covers all sectors."

Watson's opinion is coloured by his position; he's managing director of Alstom's transport activities in the UK and Ireland and, as such, is a major consumer of power electronics components. But he's also chairman of PowerelectronicsUK, launched about a year ago with the aim of increasing the UK's share of the £135billion global power electronics market. Watson has recently taken over the chairman's role from fellow Alstom executive Steve Burgin. So does he see progress since the launch? "PowerelectronicsUK is still finding its way," he said, "but it has a number of dedicated people who believe in the cause." One of the aims of the organisation was to drive the industry forward by recruiting companies to support its work. Has that happened? "We're still talking about how to market PowerelectronicsUK effectively," Watson admitted, "but I haven't paid too much attention to who is in the membership and who might want to join. However, the number of contacts has been increasing and we have to capitalise on this. But I do know that passive membership doesn't appeal to me – that's something that could take away, rather than add, value." He says power electronics is becoming a 'meaningful' technology. "It is better technology for customers, who are willing to pay more, and power electronics technology is exportable. It's different to the UK's legacy industries, which rely on the home market. The UK's expertise in power electronics continues to grow because the world doesn't do power electronics as well as it's done here." And he uses Alstom as what he calls a 'perfect example'. "We use power electronics in trains, including high speed trains, and want to use the latest technology – the best from the UK." Representing the power electronics sector to the Government is another aspect of the chairman's role which appeals to Watson. "We need to take cohesive arguments to Government," he asserted. "We as a country need to invest in the future and this will only come from us being at the leading edge. But it's an area that can often require 'kickstarting' and Government awareness will be needed in order to keep the UK in the first division. Otherwise, companies might think about developing technology elsewhere. Without Government support, the power electronics sector could lose out." Watson is pleased that he sees the necessary support from Government, but adds awareness of the importance of technology is spreading through the world of politics. "There is a changed political landscape," he said. "There is talk about onshoring, infrastructure funding is resilient and there is agreement on the 'right way' to develop the UK. It's something which has resonance across the parties and wasn't there previously. They realise the UK needs a cohesive industrial strategy when it comes to core technology." He is impressed with the latest crop of MPs. "It could be a future minister we're talking to," he said, "but they're bright, they're young and they want to know. However, we need them to 'buy in' to our vision of the future and that's our challenge." A couple of things give him hope for the future. One is the perception that the long term is now important. "The Labour Party could be the Government in waiting," he said. "It doesn't want what's happening now to be lost and I welcome that because it implies there will be continuity." Another plus point for Watson is the proposal by Sir John Armitt for a National Infrastructure Commission to work at arm's length from the Government. "It transcends the current model, where Governments don't have the ability to look beyond five years." And Watson sees PowerelectronicsUK as having a role to play here. "The Government doesn't always know where to spend money and industry associations aren't always enough. Bodies like PowerelectronicsUK become critical in informing Government opinion and decisions. "The Government is opening up to us," he added, "but there are still a lot of self serving arguments being put forward about where money should be spent." Nonetheless, Watson appreciates challenges remain. "Technologies won't get funded unless it can be shown they have broad application and can help the largest number of people. But it's hard for technologists to show gains without applications. They need to be able to show that a 'smaller box' can be better and to have economic advantage." Another issue that concerns Watson is skills. "It's a problem for Alstom and for engineering in general. Getting the right people at the right time is a bigger challenge." He points to apprenticeships as a way of creating more engineers. "They will be the next experts," he said. "We haven't seen such attraction to apprenticeships since the 1970s." For power electronics to really take off in the UK, Watson says there needs to be scalability in the supply chain. "And that only comes from looking at it as whole. We could just sell 'boxes', but that's harder. We need to embed power technology in products and export them – that's achievable and the export march is back on." Terence Watson Terence Watson is country president of Alstom in the UK and managing director of Alstom's UK and Ireland transport activities. He oversees the strategic direction and performance of the UK business, which employs 6500 people at more than 30 locations. He has more than 20 years' experience in energy and rail, having worked in the power automation engineering and gas industries. As senior vice president Europe in Alstom's international network, he was responsible for strategic development of international markets for the Power and Transport sectors. Chairman of Power Electronics UK and industry chair of the newly founded Rail Supply Group, he has a BSc in Mechanical Engineering.