Interview with Eddie O'Connor

Interview with Eddie O'Connor, CEO Mainstream Renewable Power

Eddie O'Connor Interview

Part of our Global Sustainability Leaders Inteview Archive, this interview dates from 2010

Having just won the bid for the Hornsea R3 development, what do you envisage will be the biggest challenge for Mainstream to deliver this project?

Delivery of the Hornsea Zone and the wider offshore wind programme presents considerable economic opportunities for the east coast of the UK:

Industrial and Port Redevelopment: Proximity to the Humber and Tees Estuaries is a key benefit for zone delivery.  The estuaries contain several ports that could be used for construction and long term operation & maintenance.  

Manufacturing and Jobs: Locally-based Corus, and numerous other businesses, have the potential to become major suppliers to the offshore wind industry.  

Research Collaboration Opportunities: Between regional academic institutes and supply chain companies on technology development, demonstration and deployment.

Training and Skills Development Opportunities: Ranging from early sector attraction at school-age, through to advanced technician training for the engineering roles required within the sector supply chain.  East  Coast Manufacturing Cluster.

To maximise this opportunity, activity should be focused on developing an east coast manufacturing cluster consisting of material and component suppliers, with deep water port access, as well as universities and research institutions with tailored R&D and education. 

Within the wind industry examples of such clusters already exist in northern Germany, Denmark and Spain.  To maximise the potential of the offshore wind industry to the UK it is essential that at least one cluster is established on the east coast of the UK. 

SMart Wind will work with its development partners and stakeholders in striving to achieve this goal, which will help reduce the cost of offshore wind to the consumer.  

Potential Obstacles to Delivery
Grid connection is potentially the most significant obstacle facing delivery of offshore wind.  Proactive grid reinforcement and a coherent regulatory regime are needed to facilitate timely connections.  

Conversely “Round 3” also represents the single greatest opportunity to realise European interconnection.  With strategic leadership to create a free European electricity market, the UK will reap the benefits from its unparalleled wind resource. 

The Planning Act creates a robust planning framework that could accelerate progress.  However, Government must still ensure that its agencies and bodies involved in the process are sufficiently resourced to process applications.  

This is regarded as a key risk.  Involvement, and even intervention, will also be needed in relation to key issues arising from spatial conflicts.  A number of these issues extend across national boundaries and industry is likely to require Government assistance to reach solution.

What makes Mainstream stand out from other companies in this field, what makes this company attractive for future employees?

Our culture is based on working together as a team, regardless of where you’re based – be it in Cape Town or Santiago, London or Chicago. One of our five core values is ‘Working together’. We view our people as our defining strength.

We pride ourselves on our small company feel and our aim is to maintain that approach as we expand in size and in geographic spread. Being part of Mainstream is being part a world-class team where you have an opportunity to work with and learn from a best-in-class management team. 

You will experience a truly entrepreneurial company which is always progressing, fast moving and dynamic.  Flexibility is important to us because when new opportunities arise, time is critical and we act fast.  You will be part of a company which is recognised as a leader in its field where you will be encouraged to make your personal mark within the company. 

You will work with internationally-recognised thought –leaders and you will be supported in helping to develop new ideas and concepts.

Mainstream is a Highly innovative company and you will be encouraged to innovate both strategically and in your day to day activities.  You will be empowered to achieve and exceed in your careers and will have extensive career-development opportunities, which includes the opportunity to travel. 

We are a goal-focused company but you will be given flexibility and autonomy in terms of how you chose to reach those goals.  We acknowledge and recognise the achievements of all our staff through various means including our ‘Person of the Moment’ award.  Mainstream is a challenging - but fun, positive and collaborative environment in which to work.

 What are the main concerns/barriers to the development of a European Supergrid?

Main Barriers are:
1. Political Vision
2. Enabling Legislation
3. Technology
4. Supply Chain 

Easy ones first:
This will be the largest engineering project ever undertaken and will no doubt face engineering and supply chain challenges – some of which are listed below.


Technology . There are some technical developments required to get the supergrid up and running but history shows that, where there’s a market, the technology will follow. Particular areas are:
• High Voltage DC Converters
• High Voltage Cables
• DC Switches
• Control and Protection of multi-node HVDC links

Supply Chain – this is a similar argument to 3. As the market develops, the supply chain will follow; particularly in:
• HV Cables
• Cable Laying Ships
• Port Infrastructure
• HVDC Converters

Less easy are:

Political Vision - The creation of a European supergrid will require political vision at EU level to overcome the inertia that can block such developments at national level.  Some of this inertia will be due to:
• Failure to grasp the possibilities for future energy security, independence and sustainability
• Perception that supergrid is expensive when, in context, it is not
• Nature of current Transmission System Operators narrow vision and horizons
• No Master Plan for European Energy Delivery beyond 2020

Enabling Legislation – Once the vision / master plan is in place the legal basis for the supergrid will be needed. This should include provision for:
• European Regulator
• Supergrid System Operator
• Technical Standards/Grid Code
• Single Market Rules

HV = High Voltage
DC = Direct Current

Which countries /areas do you envisage being the 'future stars' for wind energy production over the coming years and what other technologies do you see having some near-term value to renewable energy generation?

On land, Chile and South Africa, the United States and Canada.  Offshore, it will be a European business.

Where do you see the skills gaps and would Mainstream offer any initiatives to develop and train the energy professionals of the future?

In the UK and Europe in general there is a very big skills gap in mathematics.  There are too few engineers in existence to plan and build the new sustainable future.   There is lots of entrepreneurial zeal for offshore in the UK and I believe when the emergent enterprises understand the full extent of the opportunity we are going to see a whole new cadre of entrepreneurs emerging.  One of the clearest skills gaps that exist is at the apprentice level for the trades that would be needed to build, operate and maintain the huge number of offshore wind farms that will be built in European waters.

Along with my Board Member, Sir Roy Gardner I sit on the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network.     Mainstream is working with Northumberland College and Narec and together the Partnership has constructed a wind technician training tower, the first of its kind in the world to include internal lift technology similar to that which will be employed in tomorrow’s taller offshore turbines.  We have sent our own staff abroad to Germany to study how the Germans handle the apprentice training issue, as well as the work of the Partnership being fully endorsed by the German WindSkill programme.

Are there any other key issues or point which you woud like to raise for our readers to discuss?

The journey to sustainability needs a complete rethinking of the work that is done in society and by companies over the coming forty years.  A planet occupied by six to nine billion people is by and large going to have to be almost for the first time in history to live completely sustainably.

The largest part of this struggle is of course energy.  With enough energy the seas can be desalinated to produce drinking water.  Streams of waste can be processed to recover precious commodities such as phosphorus and platinum for instance.

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