Windmills and other inventions - the hostile climate in Ireland
Of the numerous companies that have gone into liquidation in the present recession, the case of Alternaative Energy Ltd. of Woodford Co. Gallway is of greater significance than most. Of course the troubles associated with the failure of a company are the same for everyone - losing 20 to 40 jobs is no joke for a rural village such as Woodford with its 300+ inhabitants. But with the loss of Alternative Energy Ltd. the nation will almost certainly lose for the forseeable future an indigenous wind energy industry; and the company's failure is a frustrating illusstration of the nation's unwillingness to support Irish research and manufacture of products of a risky nature but that would provide us potentially with an independent technology.
AEL's (Alternative Energy Limited) business was the development and manufacture of wind-generators, winddpumps and associated products. It beegan its activities in the late seventies at a time when panic at oil prices was high, havoc was wreaked on domestic economies and some countries were prudently examining alternative sourrces of energy.
EEC energy strategy calls for the encouragement of the use of renewwable energy sources (besides nuclear energy. which we have temporarily abandoned, and coal). Ireland has not ignored the development of the most suitable of the renewables for this country, wind, but neither has 'its government pursued it with anything like the zeal of that much less windy country, Denmark.
Denmark rivals the US in wind energy technology and its government actively promotes the development and use of wind generators. - Large machines are in operation and energy generated from wind is exported to Norway. Grants of 30% are given to buyers of wind energy systems as well as tax incentives on loan repayments and utility companies must buy surrplus electric power from owners of the systems. The Danish Department of the Environment was commisssioned to locate 2,000 sites for large wind generators.
In Ireland, the task of developing wind systems was left to private inndustry, namely AEL. Free enterprise was used too in Denmark but it was given incentives and technical support at academic level and state test faciliities.
By 1978 AEL (formed in 1977 by Dudley Steward and Eamonn McGovvern, engineers committed to the allternative energy systems) had embarrked on a formal research and developpment programme. They had found, as had the ESB before them in the late fifties, that generators of foreign manufacture would not withstand Irish wind conditions.
In 1979, the company made a proofit, largely due to related engineering products such as lattice towers which the company designed and made. In 1980 as a 1981 IPC report said, "to the detriment of the company's commmercial activities, particular attention was paid to research and development," concentrating its manpower on buildding new plant and researching its raiison d'etre, a windmill modifiable to any size and any wind regime. It lost £53,000 in that year.
In 1982, AEL seems to have mostly completed its research projects, incluuding a windcharger, windpump, a 10 kw wind generator, the Phoenix, a microprocessor control device to opptimise fuel use in central heating units, a wind turbine and a computer design analysis for wind generators, where the 10 kw Phoenix could be advanced to a 100 kw generator. But as for tradding ill the ancillary bread and butter products, AEL was limping along ðpartly a result too of the recession in agriculture, as farmers were their best market.
In 1980, the Government invested faith and money in the wind-power idea, when the Department of Energy initiated a national wind-power demonnstration programme. Last year, the Department spent £300,000 on the development of wind-power and the
ESB spent £500,000. To test how effective wind-power can be, about 11 wind machines have been erected at selected locations, including an AEL Phoenix at Portlaoise and smaller machines at Creagh and Ballinamore. Both ESB and the Department reject involvement in research and developpment, see their role as demonstration only and as Sean MacMahon (Energy) said "are shopping around for suitable types of wind machines." Apart from AEL's, all their test machines are of foreign manufacture.
During the quite acrimonious creeditors meeting that followed the liquidation of AEL in May, the managging director, Dudley Stewart, agreed that even with a loss in 1980, the commpany had spent on research and devellopment in 1981; and that the value of its assets had diminished despite conntrary market reports of a vast market for its 'quality products in the next 20 years.' Intangible items, he admitted.
AEL's identity and the nature of its business was essentially pioneering. A high expenditure was necessary to develop its chosen product, a product that is generally accepted as of not only commercial value. Numerous letters from TDs and Ministers say So. Garret FitzGerald spoke of his vision of 'windmills ranged along the western seaboard' in the heady pre-election days of '81; Fine Gael espouses wind energy in its Energy Policy; Charles Haughey has a wind generator on his island in the Blaskets.
And although the shareholders innvested much capital in the project, much help came from agencies such as the IDA, CTT, NBST. "These facilities" says Dudley Stewart "were opened up to the company with the best of gooddwill by the relevant state agencies" but the failure of AEL to survive when the most crucial stage of its research was surmounted and it was about ready to go into full-scale production, highlights the absence of Government policy on financing potentially valuable research and seeing technology through to prooduction. Instead we buy it in.
So where does that leave indigenous technology and Alternative Energy Ltd.? A Dutch company, Bosman, is negotiating for its takeover which may .rescue employment and hopefully the product but will take it out of Irish control. The Department of Energy - which considered taking it on but didn't since, as Sean MacMahon said "We don't regard R&D as our barrow" - will continue to buy foreign macchines unsuited perhaps to Irish connditions. Any visionary entrepreneur will be discouraged from having a go at Irish technology and Irish manuufacture of an Irish product. And is all that research to be dispersed to the winds?