Entrepreneur Eddie O’Connor was disowned by the company he founded after expressing his opinion about why sub-Saharan Africa is so undeveloped. His new book explains how he reached his conclusions, writes Nick Mulcahy
Comments about Africa saw the wind power entrepreneur exiled from the business he founded. He explains his thinking further in his new autobiography
It was a cruel blow for Eddie O’Connor. Days after the closing of the deal to sell control of his Mainstream Renewable Power to Norway’s Aker Horizons, O’Connor was out as executive chairman and off the board too. There’s up to €100m at stake on the earnout deal for the Mainstream shareholders, and now the founder won’t have a voice at the boardroom table. Worse, perceptions matter to the businessman, and it’s not a good look when the controversy centres on comments about Africans.
O’Connor (74) came unstuck over remarks he made at the Dublin Climate Dialogues event in May. The Irish Times reported that O’Connor stated: “The great problem that we found trying to electrify Africa with renewable energy has been the lack of capability. When you go and talk to the ministers and the prime ministers and the ministers for finance, they do not have that tradition of democracy. They are largely tribal societies. They don’t have the educated cadres who are going to be able to do this.”
Mainstream reacted immediately to the “inappropriate comments”. The company stated that O’Connor’s generalisations about the continent of Africa “neither reflect reality nor do they in any way represent Mainstream’s views, values, and experience working with our local partners and communities in Africa”.
O’Connor apologised the same day. “My remarks were entirely inappropriate and insensitive,” he stated. “I made inaccurate and harmful generalisations about the continent of Africa that do not reflect reality, and instead serve only to perpetuate stereotypes. I take personal responsibility for my comments and recognise the hurt I have caused in making them. We will need the immense talents of people around the world – particularly in Africa – to combat climate change and to make the energy transition a reality. I am sorry for my words that detract from the importance and significance of this mission.”
Though it certainly wasn’t his intention, the incident and the fallout may spark heightened interest in O’Connor’s new autobiography, which has the topical title of A Dangerous Visionary. Too few Irish business achievers tell their story, and O’Connor’s account of his remarkable career is well worth reading. And there’s an entire chapter on Africa, which illuminates where O’Connor was coming from during his Dialogues faux pas.
Eddie O’Connor is Ireland’s most successful wind energy entrepreneur. Not surprisingly, he talks up the looming ‘climate catastrophe’ caused by burning fossil fuels. The irony is
that before renewables O’Connor was in charge of Bord na Móna, which eviscerated peatland carbon sinks to burn the turf and belched CO2 from ESB power stations in the midlands.
O’Connor’s Damascene conversion occurred in 1989, when Bord na Móna board member Eoin O’Neill explained to the CEO how carbon dioxide heats up the atmosphere. “The intervention by O’Neill caused the greatest emotional, intellectual and commercial upset in my life,” the book relates. “Here I was, the leading polluter in Ireland, responsible for organising the emission of more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year. I slowly started to do something about it.”
In fact there wasn’t much O’Connor could do, beyond tentatively moving into wind farms. Bord na Móna was a political project to generate employment, and the ESB continued to burn peat for another three decades, funded by enormous consumer subsidies. O’Connor exited the company in 1996, and the book has a pacey account of how he was shafted.
When O’Connor had been hired from the ESB in 1987 to run Bord na Móna, he struck a sweet remuneration deal with chairman Brendan Halligan, a Labour Party apparatchik. O’Connor wasn’t a Labour member, though he was a leftie rabble rouser at UCD in the 1960s. He recalls driving Labour’s election campaign director Niall Greene around the north-west. “They would have been closer to my political convictions at the time than any other party,” he writes.
In the 1990s, when a new chairman was appointed to replace Halligan, and O’Connor fell out with his civil servant masters, ‘Peat Throat’ leaks about the CEO’s generous terms and conditions titillated Sunday newspaper readers. It became a political issue, and though O’Connor fought his corner, he decided to walk the plank.
O’Connor’s exit deal was as generous as the one on the way in – 90% of his full pension paid from the age of 47. This speaks to O’Connor’s toughness and self-esteem, also evidenced by five magazine covers included in the book illustrations. O’Connor’s father was a talented statistician, and his career took the family from Roscommon to the capital, where Eddie completed his schooling in Blackrock College. An engineering degree was O’Connor’s ticket into the ESB, and the autobiography provides important historical insight into the uniondominated state monolith.
O’Connor writes: “At the Pigeon House I found out that the workers had not even a smidgen of interest in communism or anything to do with the proletariat. Instead I discovered that the lads had a phenomenal interest in their wage packets. Ringsend station was a disaster. One executive came in at 10am and left at noon, then came back at 2pm and left at 4pm. The standards of management were really horrifying.”
O’Connor’s final power station posting was in Mayo. “Industrial relations were generally very good at Bellacorick,” he recalls. “The main problem was staff who were alcoholics. There was nothing like the class differences at Ringsend, but personal antagonisms between people caused most of the difficulties.”
The detail about Bord na Móna’s inner workings isn’t so granular. Instead readers are treated to insight into the messing that went on among civil servants and politicians as the company boss tried to go about running the business. As interesting is the chapter on the endgame at the turf company – “it is hard to imagine what it is like to be a marked man in the eyes of the state”.
In terms of monetary reward, being “hounded out” of Bord na Móna was the best thing that ever happened to Eddie O’Connor. He turned his attention to developing wind farms in Ireland and Scotland with his own venture, Airtricity. The startup’s progress is well told in the book, and the author is very good at explaining the technicalities of wind power generation. In 2008, Airtricity was sold for c.€1.8bn, and the semi-state manager turned entrepreneur had grossed c.€50m at the age of 60.
O’Connor went on to repeat the trick with Mainstream Renewable Power. The company’s most high-profile project was Neart na Gaoithe, a mammoth offshore wind farm in Scotland. This brought O’Connor into conflict with odd bedfellows Donald Trump and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and both parties are dissed by O’Connor in his book.
Mainstream saw off the objectors in the UK courts and in 2018, the company offloaded the development to EDF for €650m. “The sale of Neart enabled us to clear all debt and buy out lenders who owned 25% of the business. We, namely myself with a 57% stake, management, staff and directors with 8%, and private investors with 35%, were left in total control of the business.”
Then, last January, along came the Norwegians, a deal not referenced in the book. Aker deal details are opaque. The Norwegian buyer says it now has a 75% stake in Mainstream after a transaction that valued the enterprise at €900m. Existing Mainstream shareholders ‘re-invested’ to retain 25% ownership, the deal announcement stated.
‘Due to low levels of electrification, African entrepreneurs are disenfranchised’