Going with the wind

Eddie O’Connor – Airtricity

Eddie O’Connor is the face of wind power in Ireland. He is sharply critical of the energy set-up in Ireland and Airtricity has turned its attention abroad. Niall Gormley spoke to him about the potential for wind power.

O’Connor is the man who made alternative energy serious in Ireland. Hitherto, the subject had been largely the preserve of the left-wing environmental movement who pointed out the damage of fossil fuels and the potential of clean fuels.

It always made sense. With the arrival of Eddie O’Connor it also made money.

He was a founder of Future Wind Partnerships in 1997, set up to explore the potential for wind power in Ireland. In 1999, this group joined with National Toll Roads (NTR) to form Airtricity and set about building up Ireland’s wind generating capacity in earnest. Today, Airtricity has about 160MW of generating capacity on line with another 40MW approved in planning.

This doesn’t include the completion of the offshore wind farm on the Arklow banks.

What does this mean in practice?

Well, in 2005 wind power supplied nearly 7% of Ireland’s electricity. This means that wind power is now a serious player in the energy business. With Airtricity supplying about 40% of that total it is now selling electricity to some 45,000 businesses. The Arklow wind farm is one of the largest in the world and the 3.6MW turbines are actually the largest com- mercial turbines in operation on the planet at this

time. Very impressive.

Eddie O’Connor had a lot of experience in the energy business before embracing wind power. After finishing a chemical engineer- ing degree at UCD he went straight into the ESB where he stayed for 17 years in

a whole variety of jobs and ending up as fuel purchasing manager in 1986.

He then took a leap across the semi- state and energy sectors where he became

Chief Executive of Bord na Mona. He remained there until 1996 when he ‘retired’. He had no intention of retiring from active business and began to search for opportu- nities to complement his experience. Wind

power seemed to fit the bill.

While it wasn’t a Damascene transforma- tion to saving the world, it was a mixture of his belief, even then, of the fact of global warming.

“I wanted to do something on renewable energy at Bord Na Mona but that didn’t prove possible. It was really the pollution aspect that I was interested in, that we were con- tributing to global warming by burning all this peat.”

Allied to that outlook was the practical aspects of wind energy which he states flatly: “Wind energy has free fuel and I just thought

that it looked like a good business opportunity. I gathered together a lawyer, an accountant and a wind specialist, and we took it from there.”

However, the line from the small beginnings of 1998 to the huge capital worth of Airtricity today was not a straight one. Nor is it really an Irish success story. Eddie O’Connor becomes dis- missive when we get round to the role of windpower in Ireland. What I want to know, and what a lot of people on the street would like to know, is what happens when the wind stops blowing? This is a very sore point because a couple of years back a moratorium was put on new wind power connections to the grid. The reason given was that the grid could only han- dle so much wind power. We’ve reached a limit. What does he

have to say about that?

“We’re not within an asses’ roar of the limit. We’ve never had a problem. They don’t just like competition. We were the only country in the world with one per cent wind power to put a moratorium on wind connections.” He shakes his head.

He has a point. In Denmark windpower now supplies over 22% of total electricity consumed and there has never been a delay in connecting new wind farms.

But still the point is relevant. What happens when the wind stops blowing? What is the realistic slice of our electricity that wind can supply? I ask him repeatedly.

“350 per cent”, he says flatly. “Because the wind is always blowing somewhere”. And this is the critical new concept which has led to Airtricity to propose a European supergrid (See box). It is an idea which effectively removes the ceiling to the growth of wind power.

The concept could also work in an Irish context, particularly in relation to offshore wind. It is very unusual for Ireland to experience low wind speeds around all our coasts simultane- ously. Indeed, within the concept of the proposed supergrid, Ireland could become an exporter of wind energy as we have one of the best average wind speeds in Europe.

But Eddie O’Connor is deeply sceptical about Ireland’s ability to capitalise on this resource.

“We walked away from Ireland. Two years ago when they introduced the moratorium we said ‘Hey, we get the message. You don’t want us. Well good luck.’ Thanks be to God for Scotland and America.”

The moratorium has been lifted and Airtricity are building in Ireland again. Eddie O’Connor says that there is still discrimination

against wind power. “You can get a polluting gas-powered plant connected in 72 days – for wind it take 1,050 days,” he says. And he’s gloomy about the prospects for a vibrant Irish wind industry. “None” he says when I ask him about this. He says that he brought in executives from wind power companies to see var- ious people in authority and the executives told him that they

believed the Government wasn’t interested.

In that landscape, Airtricity has been building up business abroad. They have bought options on €500m worth of wind tur- bines from General Electric. And now in a classic ‘selling snow to the Eskimos’ scenario the company has made a breakthrough in selling energy in JR country. Last June the company opened it’s first wind farm in Texas and will be delivering electricity by Christmas 2006.