Eddie O’Connor obituary: Global entrepreneur in the energy sector and radical thinker

A pioneering figure in the renewable energy sector and the development of wind energy and a passionate advocate for a European supergrid

Born: June 26th, 1947

Died: January 5th, 2024

Eddie O’Connor, the Roscommon-born businessman and global entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector, who has died at the age of 76, will be remembered most for his pioneering work in the renewable energy sector and in particular the development of wind energy.

O’Connor was a former chief executive of the Irish semi-State peat development company, Bord na Móna, the founder of Eirtricity (now SSE Airtricity), an electricity supplier and wind farm development company, and co-founder of Mainstream Renewable Power.

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He was also a passionate and articulate advocate for a European supergrid using thin, fast, cost-effective and energy-efficient cables to distribute electricity from renewable sources using technology he was developing in the SuperNode superconductor technology project with his Norwegian partner company, Aker Horizons.

He will be remembered as a radical thinker and an inspiring business leader with a bold vision and the capacity to get things done.

O’Connor’s initial interest in renewables dates back to 1989 when as Bord na Móna chief executive, a board member told him that carbon dioxide was dangerously heating the world

John Fitzgerald, chief executive of SuperNode, described O’Connor as a “swashbuckling pioneer and irrepressible visionary”. “He inspired others to believe that change could happen and gave them confidence that they could make it happen. He spotted opportunities and trends many years before anyone else,” said Fitzgerald.

In 2003, O’Connor was named World Energy Policy Leader by Scientific American magazine. In 2009, he was presented with the first leadership award at the annual Ernst & Young Global Renewable Energy awards.

In 2017, he declared: “Fossil fuels have lost ... The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.”

O’Connor’s initial interest in renewables dates back to 1989 when as Bord na Móna chief executive, a board member told him that carbon dioxide was dangerously heating the world. In an interview with The Irish Times in 2021, he recalled his reply. “I said, Really? But that’s the only way we make electricity,” and I was the leading polluter at the time in Ireland, responsible for 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from peat used in power generation. From then on, I decided this [renewable energy] was going to be the mission.”

During his time at Bord na Móna, he had a strong working relationship with its chairman, Brendan Halligan, who he said “recognised that a tough transformation job had to be done and realised nobody was going to like it”. In 1992, Bord na Móna built Ireland’s first commercial wind farm in Bellacorick, Co Mayo.

In 1996, O’Connor resigned from Bord na Móna following an acrimonious boardroom dispute about his remuneration package, which ultimately came down in O’Connor’s favour.

The following year, he became founder and chief executive of Eirtricity (later Airtricity) which went on to develop wind farms in Ireland, the UK and North America. During this time, O’Connor led the construction of the Arklow Bank offshore wind farm, which is still Ireland’s only offshore wind project.

In 2007, Airtricity sold its North America assets to German group E.ON and in 2008, sold the remaining assets to the Scottish and Southern Energy. Both deals were reported to have netted O’Connor over €40 million at the time.

After Airtricity, O’Connor poured a lot of his money into setting up Mainstream Renewable Power, which went on to develop wind and solar farms in Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Asia Pacific region. In 2021, the Norwegian company, Aker Horizons acquired a majority stake in Mainstream.

As well as making O’Connor super rich – though he often said that he wasn’t motivated by money – the deal sparked an enduring friendship with Aker Horizons owner Kjell Inge Rokke, one of Norway’s richest men.

In a 2021 Irish Times interview, O’Connor described Rokke as his “soul brother” and they embarked on ambitious new projects, including the SuperNode superconductive power cables to make Europe self-sufficient in carbon-free electricity by 2030.

In 2021, O’Connor wrote his biography, A Dangerous Visionary (Currach Press) with rich detail about working with unions during his various managerial roles at the ESB and Bord na Móna and how he became a renewable energy developer.

In May 2021, he organised the Dublin Climate Dialogues with leading climate experts. However, he caused a social media storm over comments he made (and quickly apologised for) about how the lack of the tradition of democracy in postcolonial African countries impeded the development of renewable energy on that continent. He subsequently lost his position as chairman of Mainstream Renewables.

‘De-carbonising Europe is a continental problem... It’s about getting vast amounts of cheap offshore energy in northwestern Europe and solar around the Mediterranean to where there is most demand in the centre’

—  Eddie O'Connor

In his 2021 book, he explained his views on the causal relationship between electricity consumption and economic growth. “Due to low levels of electrification, African entrepreneurs are disenfranchised. Until they are empowered by having sufficient electricity, they will be no growth in the economies. The small and medium enterprise... is choked at birth in sub-Saharan African due to lack of electricity.”

O’Connor was also outspoken about Ireland and Europe’s renewable energy potential and how state-owned monopolies could slow down its progress.

“De-carbonising Europe is a continental problem... It’s about getting vast amounts of cheap offshore energy in northwestern Europe and solar around the Mediterranean to where there is most demand in the centre,” he said. These deep insights into how economies work coupled with the formidable systems-thinking of an engineer was what marked O’Connor out. He firmly believed leaving fossil fuels in the ground and pursuing cheaper renewable energy was the only way forward.

O’Connor’s impatient desire to solve climate change by developing renewable energy to replace fossil fuels prompted his 2023 book, Supergrid – Super Solution: the Key to Solving the Energy Crisis and Decarbonising Europe which was co-authored by The Irish Times Environment and Science Editor Kevin O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan described O’Connor as “impatient at every turn for collective action to address the climate crisis by scaling-up renewables, allied to electrifying almost everything when it comes to energy”.

“A supergrid for Europe, he believed, was the great enabler,” O’Sullivan added. “This was pursued unrelentingly with remarkable focus. Once he got into the room with a key influencer – investor, banker, politician, public servant or fellow developer of wind or solar power – he became the great persuader. But the approach was always informed by the best of strategy and a natural instinct for innovation. Those who backed his mission were called upon repeatedly to push for the cause, while there was no time for prevaricators,” said O’Sullivan.

Married to Hildegarde for over 50 years, O’Connor brought both of his children and his-son-in-law to work in his renewable energy ventures and was an energetic and adoring grandfather

Having initially grown up in Roscommon as the eldest of four children of statistician Robert (Bob) and Una O’Connor, he moved to live in Booterstown, south Dublin, at the age of seven.

Following his secondary school education at Blackrock College, he completed an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at University College Dublin in 1970, and a Masters in industrial engineering in 1976, also at UCD.

Married to Hildegarde for over 50 years, O’Connor brought both of his children and his-son-in-law to work in his renewable energy ventures and was an energetic and adoring grandfather. He enjoyed playing golf, particularly at Portmarnock Golf Club, and was always a great supporter of Lansdowne rugby club and UCD, where SuperNode was based in its early years. In 2023, he acquired a Bordeaux estate, Chateau Tour des Termes, with the aim of creating a sustainable vineyard that could cope with global warming.

Eddie O’Connor is survived by his wife, Hildegarde, children Lesley and Robert, brother Des, sisters Mary and Anne, and his five grandchildren.

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