Yesterday, his green energy firm Mainstream Renewable Power signed a deal worth $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) that will see it develop Vietnam’s wind energy offerings.
Mainstream Renewable Power is not O’Connor’s first foray in the energy sphere. He spent nearly ten years in charge of Bord na Móna, the sprawling semi-state company that looks after cutaway bogs, biomass supply and peat-based power generation, among other things. In 1997, he left Bord na Móna to found Airtricity, amidst controversy surrounding his pay and expenses that saw him fall out with the company’s board.
By the time he sold the wind power company for €2 billion in 2008, it had around two dozen wind farms throughout the UK and Ireland.
Mainstream is his most ambitious project to date, however. In Ireland, it operates two wind farms: one in Kerry and another in Leitrim. A third, in Cavan, is due to come on stream shortly.
Plans for a massive Offaly-based €12.5 billion wind farm, which would have exported to the over-subscribed British energy market, fell apart in 2014, when Britain’s government backed away from the idea.
But the picture is a lot bigger than Ireland: the company has offices in seven countries, across four continents, with over 140 employees.
Buoyed by €32 million of O’Connor’s own money, Mainstream raised more than €270 million in funding in its early years.
Its core business targets renewable energy projects in emerging markets like Vietnam – doing everything from conception, financing, construction and operation of the projects. Mainstream has partnered with governments, winning procurement processes in South Africa, and corporations, assisting Ikea with its own energy ambitions. A €400 million investment in an offshore wind farm in Ghana a few years ago will see it become a major supplier in the country. And August saw a €1.5 billion investment in wind and solar energy in Chile, and O'Connor said the firm was open to raising more cash, even if it meant ceding a majority stake in the company.
The company has seen two rounds of potential initial public offerings (IPOs). In 2011, O’Connor considered floating Mainstream in Hong Kong, but the euro crisis swiftly thwarted those plans. And in 2014, it delayed another potential IPO in Asia until next year, in response to worldwide deregulation of energy markets and the need to restructure the company.
Not every venture of his has produced the kind of returns he’s seen from the energy sphere, though. Last year, he admitted that he lost around €100,000 through a minority stake in Mastpoint, the firm that lent Plymouth Argyle Football Club around €3 million in the form of a second mortgage for its Home Park Stadium. The football club went into administration, with debts of about €15 million, a few years go.
Now nearly 70, the UCD graduate will lead the company’s plans with General Electric, which could see as many as 10 energy projects built in Vietnam. With wind power producing just 60 megawatts of energy there, the next few years could see it tap into a market that has room for ten-fold expansion.