Niall McMahon

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Energy Research in Ireland


Niall McMahon

Thinking about how best to structure Irish public funds for academic research, two ideas come to mind: (i) there is a lively debate to be had about the place of government in academic research, about whether or not it's appropriate or useful for the civil service to define the research carried out in the universities and research institutes; (ii) the argument that relatively mature renewable energy technologies, for example wind, have little need for public research monies is unconvincing. Nevertheless, this is an idea that has come up in recent discussions.

Ireland will depend heavily on wind energy in the future. It is the country's primary renewable resource. Despite this, in wind Ireland has a relatively limited technical capability, not so many active researchers or lecturers, few teaching or training programmes and, unsurprisingly, a small number of companies. (There are notable exceptions, of course.)

Wind energy generation is a technology that's been about for a while. As with all technologies, there are very many outstanding problems to be tackled. There are new ideas that need to be thought about and talked about. It's wrong to assume that these will be taken care of by foreign industries as a matter of course. Much of the important research work already contributing to the wind industry was generated by government funded agencies, e.g. Risø in Denmark and NREL in the United States. Quite apart from the contribution from older pre-war research institutions.

Ireland imports almost everything to do with wind energy. Public research monies can be used to create real wind energy research and development efforts.

Aside from helping to find solutions for the many outstanding problems in wind, academic research is bound up with teaching and future technological capability. Good researchers will often be good teachers. And good teachers are required to train good engineers and other workers. With well-educated workers and an excellent wind resource, Ireland ought to be exporting expertise and knowledge in wind, not only importing it.

As an ideal testing ground for wind machines, it's not difficult to imagine Ireland as one of Europe's leading wind test sites. Even a manufacturing base, with time. There are no real obstacles in the way of Ireland doing this. However, if it is to really benefit from its wind resource, Ireland will need trained people, places to train them and good ideas.

To promote research and development investment in other technologies, at the expense of any useful research, but particularly wind energy, does not seem sensible.

Bill Gates has spoken and written at length about the importance of publicly funded research and development, both for the development of some of Microsoft's innovations and for other areas of endeavour, for example renewable energy technologies. In his 2007 testimony to the US Senate, about strengthening US competitiveness, he said,

While private sector research and development is important, federal research funding is vital. Unfortunately, while other countries and regions, such as China and the European Union, are increasing their public investment in R&D, federal research spending in the United States is not keeping pace. To address this problem, I urge Congress to take action.

In his 2010 annual letter from the Gates' Foundation, he wrote,

The most important innovation required to avoid climate change will be a way of producing electricity that is cheaper than coal and that emits no greenhouse gases. There will be a huge market for this, and governments should supply large amounts of funding for basic R&D.

It's simply untrue that mature technologies have little need for public research monies. A thriving academic community is important for the development of new ideas. A thriving academic community is important for teaching. Without such a community in wind energy in Ireland, the country will benefit only superficially from its wind resource.

About picking technological winners, being lazy and not wanting to re-write what I know of the history of ideas about the topic, I'll quote from a relatively recent article in the Economist, Picking winners, saving losers (August 2010):

Despite promises that they are not out to pick winners this time around, in green technology governments are doing exactly that. In April the European Commission anointed the electric car as the green vehicle of the future, giving warning that American and Asian competitors were moving ahead with their own programmes. Picking champions in clean technology is a mistake just as it was in older industries, says James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute. A better approach would be to concentrate efforts on creating demand for green products and services by setting a carbon price, he says. Policymakers should leave individual products to emerge from the market.

Picking winners by limiting Irish research monies to particular energy technologies will limit Ireland's potential.