Sarah Hannah is the Interim Head of Asset Systems at AGL. Her team is responsible for Asset Management Strategy and Planning, Work Management, Maintenance Strategy, Reliability, Efficiency and Knowledge Management across our electricity and gas operations.

Sarah believes that people are AGL’s most important asset and bringing them along the journey is not an option, it’s essential.

Sarah studied Chemical & Process Engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand graduating with a BEng (Hons) in 2004 before fabulous opportunities took her from New Zealand to Europe, and now to Australia.

This year, Engineers Australia – the peak Australian professional body for engineers – celebrates its centenary. AGL's Interim Head of Asset Systems, Sarah Hannah, has become EA's 25,000th active chartered member.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?

I have been a member of Engineers Australia for only a couple of months but am loving being part of this incredible network. I have been a member of IChemE since graduating in Chemical & Process Engineering.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?

This is going to sound so cliché. There were two things that led me to a career in engineering – at school I was good at maths and science and my dad is an electrical engineer! I think this reflects the era; it was all about what subjects you were good at and how that fit into professions you knew about. Internet was still dial up and I don’t recall anyone asking me about values, strengths and motivation.

I am told as a toddler I was obsessed by trains and called myself Percy (from Thomas the Tank Engine), so I’m guessing there is something genetic there too!

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?

Every morning I get up to ensure that Australia’s largest fleet of electricity generators are running as efficiently as possible. I am so passionate about supporting Australia through the transition to 100% renewables and ensuring we maintain a focus on affordability for all.

Essential services are a wonderful example of where engineering touches our communities to provide life giving amenities. We are on the cusp of a revolution in the energy industry as society demands affordable and accessible sustainable energy. The future is only limited by our imagination but with aging carbon intensive assets and a market designed for thermal generation, as engineers its our role to seize the opportunity to create the solutions.

I encourage engineers to always ask and engage with the hard questions. The energy transition is not only a technical transition, it is a transition of communities from one industry to the next with wide ranging social, economical and environmental impacts and it is our role to address them all.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?

The most interesting project I’ve worked on was one that was opened by Prince Charles! This project was in the Scottish whisky industry developing and constructing a cogeneration plant at the Combination of Rothes Distillers in Speyside.

The whisky industry creates two main waste streams; liquid waste called pot ale and solid waste called draff (spent grains). The cogeneration plant used the draff as the biomass feedstock to generate heat and power. The heat was used to evaporate the pot ale to make an animal feed protein supplement and the power supplied electricity to 9,000 local homes.

Cogeneration plants are a wonderful example of a circular economy utilising biomass waste from production to generate heat and power for that very production, and a fantastic way to generate distributed renewable energy to support large industrial demands.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?

We engineers have such an awesome and privileged role in society. We get to apply our knowledge of the sciences to design and make solutions to problems our communities face. We are taught so well how to solve problems, but we are rarely taught the skills to challenge and understand the problem or consider the human factors.

Almost every survey I see these days demonstrates the biggest challenge in asset management as cultural change. We are taught to think in black and white, and that problems have a finite solution. The issue is that culture does eat strategy for breakfast, lunch and tea. We can have the best strategy based on forward thinking and best in class technology but unless we bring people along the journey it will fail every single time.

The engineering profession must and is now addressing this through education and awareness. The customers and end users of our work are looking for a long-term improvement and for our credibility we must ensure we consider the human factors to enable us to prove this value.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?

I see a huge opportunity to change the perception of an engineer.

50 years ago, people pictured a doctor as a man in a white lab coat diagnosing an illness based on physical symptoms. Today we have gender equality in general practice and perceive a doctor as a compassionate person who is your first port of call for any physical or mental concern.

Today many still picture an engineer as a man tinkering with a machine. I see the future of engineering where an engineer is perceived as a holistic person who is your first port of call to define and solve our world’s problems. This, I believe, is the key to unlock gender equality in engineering.

The picture of a man tinkering with a machine also has another impact. I spent many years in my early career, like many of my female colleagues, trying to be one of the boys. I have also seen this impact my male colleagues, trying to ‘toughen up’. I’m starting to see engineers of all genders bringing their whole selves to work, and that is such an exciting prospect. Not only can we then be the best version of ourselves but what that diversity of thought can do for our profession, once we feel empowered to speak authentically, will be nothing short of incredible.

Who is your engineering hero?

My engineering heroes are my children. Watching them play with Lego or even cardboard boxes challenges me to push the boundaries of perceived constraints and unleash my inner creativity.

This content originally appeared on the Engineers Australia Centenary website. For more information, visit 100yearsea.com.au