Larry Staudt is Manager of the Centre for Renewable Technology at Dundalk IT (CREDIT). With a long career in the green energy sector he aims to use CREDIT to implement green solutions and to find new green solutions. He talked to Niall Gormley.
Larry Staudt has an enviable job. He gets to mess around with green technology and get paid for it. There’s quite a lot of messing to be done from wind to wave power, from biofuels to solar collectors, from economic models to liaising with industry. An infinite variety of possible solutions to Ireland’s energy problems.
So it’s good that Larry is a man of many categories. He is from Vermont in the United States and his father is German. He is a member of the Bahá’i faith which he says has a role in his quest to make the world a better place. His academic background is in electrical engineering which provides the expertise for an area of work which demands a detailed knowledge of electricity and its supply.
He graduated from university in 1975 and worked in industry for a number of years and then decided that he “wanted to do something for the planet”.
‘wind rush’ in California
“I got involved with a renewable energy company, a little firm with eight employees. We installed wind and solar systems but then eventually we invented our own wind system. We then got involved in the ‘wind rush’ in California in the early 1980’s putting up wind farms. We did a number of government R&D contracts and as a result our wind turbines stayed up and working. “
“But by 1985 it was clear that the American market was in decline and the European market was in the ascent. I wanted my kids to see the world and so I suggested to the Managing Director that we should branch out to Europe. And so we ended up in Ireland.”
So he didn’t just stumble into the environmental industry, it is clear that he has had a long-term, even lifetime, commitment to environmentalism. I ask him if he is a Green and while he protests at the political implications he agrees that he is a green with a small ‘g’. His Bahá’i faith also plays a role which he describes as “a spiritual philosophy that puts others above oneself”.
He moved to Ireland in 1985 to extend the wind business and things were looking good. The company had a turnover in 1984 of $10 million and so the move was in secure hands. But in the topsy-turvey world of renewable technology economics just one year later in 1986 the company went bust. And you have to remember what things were like in Ireland in the mid 1980’s.
“So here I was in a country with 20% unemployment, three little kids and no job. And no work permit. So life was interesting for a while. I had a consultancy with Brian Hurley of Airtricity so I did some work but it was slim pickings back then.”
He supplemented his renewable earnings by teaching engineering at the then Dundalk RTC.
Later he got a job with the ESB. Actually, it was more like two jobs. For one day a week he was their ‘renewable energy guy” as he puts it, and on the other four days he worked at the cutting edge of energy supply as a power station control system engineer.
Directing Ireland’s Grid
At times he was in front of a panel directing power throughout the national grid. With the flick of a switch he could have turned Ireland off. Most small boys would love to be in that position, perhaps knocking off the switch to see what would happen.
He did over 100 shifts operating the Irish grid, monitoring power use and bringing power stations on line when required. Needless to say this is a pretty responsible job requiring a safe pair of hands.
Although he wasn’t making his living out of wind energy any more it didn’t curtail his interest in the area. He was a founder member of the Irish Wind Energy Association and he helped to run the European Wind Conference which was held in Dublin Castle in 1997.
He was also Vice-President of the European Wind Association and he recalls being grateful to the ESB who “kindly let me wander around to go to theses meetings.” But it wasn’t a practical role and was mainly a watching brief. Although during this time he suggested to the ESB that they get involved in a couple of projects, they failed to take the bait and declined.
He left the ESB when they offered him a good severance package and took over the role of CEO of the IWEA for a couple of years and he also was involved in consulting, in wind energy mainly.
Then, around 2000, he moved to work for Airtricity, being responsible for projects on the northern half of Ireland. This was a new area of work for him. While he had been involved in turbine design and even in small scale projects, he now was responsible for whole wind farm projects starting with the first approach to local farmers.
“There was one project in Cootehill in County Cavan where there were thirty landowners involved. Getting everyone to sign up and get the thing through planning was complicated. But it was lovely and it was a great time. That scheme is now up and running and there’s another one in Bailieborough,” he recalls.
At this time he had heard that the post in CREDIT was coming up and he applied and got the job. The rest is history.
I ask him where he thinks we are now with wind energy after years of expansion and controversy over connection to the grid.
“We’re making much better progress than we have been in the past. Energy generally is on the political radar. But what worries me is this whole phenomena of ‘peak oil’ where world oil production is going to peak within the next ten years. With world energy demand rising it means that energy prices are on the way up and Ireland is at the end of a long pipeline.
“So we are going to have to make a very serious switch to renewable energy because there are no other options out there.”
Have we done that, I enquire. Are we doing that?
“No, not at all. Right now we’re saying ‘we’ll have a bit of renewable energy ‘cos it’s nice, and pollution-free and we can feel good about ourselves’. That’s a good place to start.
“But the reality is that society is going to make a fundamental switch away from fossil fuels and it’s going to have to happen quickly. We have an economic model here at CREDIT to examine the transition. The longer we leave the changeover to renewables the more painful it will be.”
He witheringly points out that the planning and foresight required to do the change lasts longer than one political term of office.
I ask him specifically about the electricity market and how that area could leave fossil fuels behind.
“Electricity is fairly straightforward. It’s actually the easiest sustainability task this country has because right now wind is significantly cheaper than any other form of electricity. And so it’s a no brainer – let’s start using a lot of wind. And we have enough wind to provide our electricity needs several times over.
“So it’s sitting there waiting to be harvested. The main issue, and it’s just a technical issue, is how to deal with the variability of wind power. That is solvable with storage, with gas turbines to use occasionally.”
I interrupt him to make the criticism that many critics of wind power make. If you have to have back-up for your wind power isn’t that going to double the capital cost of wind.
“No, no, it doesn’t work out that way. What you would have is a mixture of wind storage and rapid fire gas turbines.”
So, I ask him, is 100% wind a viable proposition. Yes, he says , but probably not an economic one.
“What we want is a mix of wind, bio-power and wave power, in the long run. But in the transition we’ll have lots of fossil fuel use – we have to get from A to B.”
What about nuclear?
“ I don’t see nuclear playing a role in Ireland but I do see it playing a role elsewhere. But the fact is that nuclear stations use uranium and there’s enough uranium to power the worlds current 439 nuclear reactors for decades to come. Well that’s ok. But those reactors provide just 7% of the world’s energy so if we want to ‘go nuclear’ we’re going to need, say, five times the number of nuclear reactors. Then we’re down to a couple of decades of uranium supply.“
So there probably won’t be a little reactor in Dundalk for CREDIT researchers to tinker around with. But much of the other work going on there is likely to shape Irish policy and practice.
Larry Staudt, with his contacts, experience and background in the renewable energy area is likely to be one of those people the Government will call on when it finally gets serious about renewable technology.