Recognising the champions of renewable energy in Ireland

Over 350 guests gathered in Killashee House Hotel in Kildare to pay tribute to the trailblazers and innovators of green energy

Noel Cunniffe, chief executive, Wind Energy Ireland, presents Dr Caroline Roche of Energia with the Wind Energy Ireland’s Person of the Year award. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography

A new industry was born with Ireland’s first wind farm on the Mayo coast in 1992 – and since then it has grown to lead the way in Ireland’s response to the climate emergency.

“Our colleagues in wind energy built a new industry, employing thousands of people, leading Ireland’s response to the climate emergency and making our country more energy secure, said chief executive of Wind Energy Ireland, Noel Cunniffe.

“On March 10 we celebrated what drives our industry forward – growth, innovation, vibrancy, the resilience of our supply chain and the incredible people at the heart of it,” Cunniffe said.

More than 350 guests gathered in Killashee House Hotel, Kildare to recognise the innovators and the green energy champions; the architects of Ireland’s clean energy future.

This year’s winner of the Champion of Renewables award is a woman who is a wind energy pioneer, one of the first people involved in setting up the industry and a founder member of what was then the Irish Wind Energy Association in 1993.

Maureen De Pietro from DP Energy: received the Champion of Renewables award. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography

Maureen De Pietro is a true trailblazer, a gutsy entrepreneur who left the comfort of the law library to fly solo to fight climate change. A founder of DP Energy, she commissioned her first wind farm – Bessy Bell in Co Tyrone – almost 30 years ago in 1994.

Cunniffe said that she has since gone on to develop some of Ireland’s premier renewable energy assets, and her family-owned business is now championing renewables across the globe, from Canada through Britain and to Australia.

“Our champion is also a torch bearer for our very own association,” he said. “Maureen De Pietro was a founder of Wind Energy Ireland and has helped nurture its growth and development over almost three decades from humble beginnings to become the leading voice and advocate for renewable energy in Ireland.

“Her energy and enthusiasm inspire all around her, including many who have gone on to forge new frontiers in our industry. She is the living embodiment of the passion, ambition, commitment and positivity that everyone in this room shares for renewable energy.”

‘I think we are beginning to win the fight against climate change, but I do worry it is too late. We must get more renewables; we must stop climate change. That’s what keeps me going,” said De Pietro.

Asked by MC Ivan Yates if she had a message for government, she said: “I think they are trying to help, we just need to get there faster.”

Eva Linehan from Cork won the Young Person of the Year award. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography

Eva Linehan (27) from Cork won this year’s Young Person of the Year Award. “We need more people, and if we can make their jobs easier with AI (artificial intelligence) and data it will help the industry,” she said.

“The jobs we are going for now didn’t exist five years ago and I imagine the job I will be working in in ten years’ time might not exist now. But it is about being open to the opportunities, and there are lots of opportunities in wind.

Eva holds a BSc in Zoology (UCC) and MSc in Computational Ecology and Evolution.

Another popular winner on the night was Dr Caroline Roche, recipient of Wind Energy Ireland’s Person of the Year award. Caroline was described as a biodiversity champion in the offshore wind space, and recognised for her role in leading the environmental elements of a number of Energia’s offshore wind projects.

The wealth of talent in the industry and the commitment to tackling climate change in Ireland is very encouraging, Cunniffe said.

However, achieving our targets, set out in the government’s Climate Action Plan, requires nothing less than a national mobilisation of people and resources not seen since Drogheda engineer Thomas McLaughlin proposed in 1923 that an impoverished island emerging from four years of war should build the largest hydro-electric dam the world had ever seen.

At the heart of this is ensuring the right structures are in place and the key state agencies have the resources they need to operate effectively. Renewable electricity has done a lot for Ireland, but it could do so much more.

“While EirGrid and ESB Networks have clearly upped their game, our planning system remains completely unfit for purpose,” said Cunniffe.

“An Bord Pleanála is desperately under-resourced, and it lacks the necessary skills and expertise to deal with offshore renewable energy. Onshore projects are already spending more than a year in the planning system and then, when they secure permission, they are vulnerable to a court challenge.

“The government’s current plans to reform the planning system, to try and speed up the process, are welcome and we will study the proposals with great interest, but they are only a part of the solution.

“An Bord Pleanála needs a massive investment of funding and personnel. It does not matter what legislative reforms are introduced if there are not enough inspectors, marine ecologists and planners, backed up by a top inhouse legal team, ready to implement them.”

The Wind Energy Ireland chief executive went on to call for the same kind of investment in other existing State agencies like the National Parks & Wildlife Service and the resources put in place in the new Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA).

It is still unclear when MARA will be able to accept applications from the next batch of offshore wind projects and every day of delay now makes our 2030 targets more difficult to achieve.

Right now, in the offshore wind industry there is still an unacceptable level of uncertainty on when projects will be able to get through the planning system and make final investment decisions on the projects. We need these projects to deliver clean power to millions of consumers.

Cunniffe said that as we strengthen our planning system, we need to see a similar level of focus on resourcing for the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) to ensure it is delivering on its responsibilities in designing Ireland’s future market and developing rules to continue connecting renewables to the grid.

But despite these challenges, wind continues to deliver. Irish consumers avoided paying €2 billion for gas last year because the country’s wind farms provided 34 per cent of our electricity, up four points on 2021.

More positive news in the form of a recent opinion poll which showed that four in five Irish people support wind farms, while opposition to wind energy has fallen to just 5 per cent. The polling, which was carried out for Wind Energy Ireland by Interactions Research, also found that 58 per cent would support the development of a wind farm in their local area and support generally for wind energy among people living in rural Ireland was at 85 per cent. Both of these figures are the highest since the tracking poll began in 2018.

“We are heading in the right direction, the policies and structures are beginning to fall into place, but the whole system is desperately under-resourced and we are still moving too slowly.”

“If we are to become energy independent through using indigenous, clean, carbon-free renewable energy it will take a collective and cohesive effort across Irish society,” said Cunniffe.

“The wind energy industry will play its part in leading Ireland’s energy transition, but if the path is to be successfully travelled it will need more than good intentions.”

Category 1: Wind Energy in the Community

Sponsor: Ocean Winds

Winner: FuturEnergy Ireland

Category 2: Exemplary Health & Safety Performance

Sponsor: Bord na Móna

Winner: H&MV Engineering

Category 3: Excellence in Project Delivery

Sponsor: ElectroRoute

Winner: Green Rebel

Category 4: Best Contractor

Sponsor: Vestas

Winner: H&MV Engineering

Category 5: Leading Legal/Financial Consultancy of the Year

Sponsor: Nordex Energy Ireland

Winner: Mason Hayes & Curran LLP

Category 6: New Market Entrant

Sponsor: A&L Goodbody

Winner: Green Rebel

Category 7: Talent & Skills Development

Sponsor: Green Tech Skillnet

Winner: Kerry Education & Training Board

Category 8: Young Person of the Year

Sponsor: Energia Renewables

Winner: Eva Linehan – Ondine

Category 9: Champion of Renewables

Sponsor: SSE Renewables

Winner: Maureen De Pietro – DP Energy

Person of the Year Award – WEI

Caroline Roche, Energia