Irelandís climate-change warriors: SEAIís Walsh backs business in the battle for survival


As the world woke up to headlines declaring a “code red” for humanity after the publication of a UN report on climate change, William Walsh was ready to get on with the job of helping Ireland play its part in avoiding the crisis.

The chief executive of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), who landed the role permanently earlier this year, is working for an organisation that has helped thousands of businesses accelerate plans to reduce energy demand and become more sustainable.

The UN report warned that the world is likely to hit its 1.5C warming limit within 20 years. It set out in stark detail the unprecedented challenges of climate change. But despite all the grim reading, Walsh still has hope.

“There is still time to act,” he says. “All businesses, public bodies, citizens, communities, and our leaders must now place climate action firmly at the core of every decision, investment, and action we take. Without an economy that is compatible with a healthy planet, there will be no economy at all.”

Set up in 2002, the SEAI is Ireland's national sustainable energy authority. It has a role in helping Ireland hit its targets under the Climate Action plan to 2030, including helping retrofit half a million homes and getting a million electric vehicles on the road.

Since SEAI's formation, Walsh says the agency had made a demonstrable contribution to Ireland's sustainable energy plan - and is set to do more. Its budget has risen from around €80m in 2016 to €350m now. The number of people it employs has also hit around 140, up from about 60 in 2016.

The SEAI works with householders, businesses, communities and the Government to create a cleaner energy future. It plays a significant role in helping people and enterprises retrofit premises, and offers grants and funding supports to people and businesses.

It also gives data and insights to back policy decisions, and offers crucial advice to companies looking to reduce energy costs and improve energy efficiency.

As energy transition and climate change move up the agenda, it is clear from Walsh that he and his team are highly motivated to make change happen.

“Irish businesses need to wean themselves off damaging and polluting fossil fuels,” he says. “The best place to start is by reducing the demand for energy, and then meeting the remaining demand through a clean source. SEAI has helped thousands of businesses accelerate this process, and we are here to help.

“If we don't act fast enough on our transition to renewable energy, we will need to start turning down the most polluting parts of our economy - in order to stay within our national carbon budget, and play our part in addressing this global crisis.”

Walsh later adds: “There probably isn't a business type we haven't worked with - we have probably seen one of everything. We have solutions, and we want to talk to people. The networks are set up.”

With the UN's climate warnings in mind, Walsh has reason to be quietly optimistic the message is getting across to Ireland's C-Suite.

Despite a recent report by the European Investment bank showing Irish firms invested just 6pc of their budgets in energy efficiency last year, he feels Irish firms are more engaged with the SEAI than at any point since he started.

"When I joined in 2013, we often found it difficult to get traction,” he says. “It was really just the early adopters that were interested in our work. “But now, for business particularly, it has become compelling. It has almost become a burning platform - pardon the pun."

Businesses have stepped up their efforts to become more efficient. Walsh points to SuperValu and Centra owner Musgrave, which received help from the SEAI to reduce energy waste by adding doors to its refrigerator units - and Flahavan’s, which reduced the need for almost half a million litres of diesel per year as it produced steam from burning oat husks.

More recently, Walsh has been inspired by the moves companies were making. He recently attended the opening of the largest solar farm in Ireland - at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly's plant near Kinsale, Co Cork.

The SEAI supported this project through State-funded community grants. As a result, the new solar farm will see the Eli Lilly plant reduce its carbon footprint by 2,350 tonnes.

Walsh says the solar farm, which will power Eli Lilly's facility, stretches across 16 acres of land with around 12,600 panels. It could power Kinsale. “When I see things like that, I do think it is possible to reach the 2030 targets - but we need to replicate that on a major scale, and that is the challenge.”

Growing up in Donaghmede in Dublin, Walsh developed a passion for the wellbeing of the environment thanks to his love of fishing. He also enjoyed business in school, but that wasn't the only lesson he learned in those early years.

“I grew up in the Eighties, and I remember one of my first lessons in life,” he says. “I must have been in third or fourth class, and one teacher said - ‘Are we going to pray for anything today?’ This girl said - ‘Pray that we all get jobs.’”

At Dublin City University, inspired by the girl's call to prayer for employment, Walsh studied business before doing accountancy. He then went on to cut his teeth in various finance roles, starting at the forerunner to Smith & Williamson.

Things changed as the Celtic Tiger came crashing to a halt. Walsh spotted a role as assistant CEO at semi-State agency Inland Fisheries Ireland that would help marry his corporate interests with his love for fishing and the environment. A move to the public sector beckoned.

Walsh says he loved the variety the role offered, which included a week's shift on a trawler. He lasted one day before his “back gave out”.

“It was the type of stuff that you would never get any exposure to working in regional towns,” he says.

In 2013, Walsh opted for a move, landing another public sector role with the SEAI as its chief operations officer. He felt he had more to contribute to the agency.

“I think in Inland Fisheries, it was about the survival of fish,” he says. “In SEAI, it is the survival of people.”

Walsh thrived at the SEAI. He first landed the interim CEO role in 2019 and was fully appointed to the position earlier this year.

Before fully landing the role, Walsh secured one of the defining moments of his career to-date. Last October, on Budget day, he won approval to significantly increase the SEAI's budget to €350m and become the national retrofit delivery body.

It was a significant achievement, a “coming of age” moment for the SEAI and Walsh. “That was a real win,” he says. “I remember on the day thinking to myself I might not have a moment like this again - this might be the highlight of my career.”

With additional funding came more scrutiny and responsibility, he says. Now, with Ireland generally recognised as being some way off from its 2030 climate targets, does he believe the country and the SEAI can succeed?

“It is possible for us to hit those targets in the first instance,” he says. “But it will require a mass movement. It requires us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Those targets are challenging. At a very high level, what you would describe as the climate transition will change the fabric of how we live. It is going to be the result of millions of decisions every day, as opposed to just Government policy.”

Walsh says a recent piece of research by the SEAI highlights Ireland's challenges. It found greenhouse gas emissions declined last year by 5.9pc, mainly due to Covid. Targets in the Programme for Government include an average 7pc per annum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through to 2030

“That's the challenge,” Walsh says. “We need to have a 2020 every year between now and 2030 without a pandemic in the middle.”

From Walsh's perspective, getting more companies on board and engaging on energy efficiency is crucial. He feels it will help the country achieve those challenging targets and boost company performance.

“At one point, this was a long-term issue. Then it was a medium-term issue,” he says. “Now, it’s a very short-term issue. Those who don't wrestle with it, and find opportunities in the challenge, will find themselves at the back of the bench. There are going to be winners and losers in this transition, like in all transitions. But for business, it is all about taking early action.”

Looking to the future, Walsh has high hopes that Ireland can completely transition its economy by 2050, including solar facades on buildings that power the properties within.

Walsh doesn't mess around, describing the need for this shift as “critically important”.

“This is a case now of survival of a species,” he says.

As Ireland transitions its economy and embraces more sustainable energy generation, Walsh recognises there are challenges. Electricity grid warnings have been rising, while power usage has also grown - led by high-power sectors, such as data centres.

Despite challenges, Walsh believes Ireland can hit its target of 70pc of electricity from renewables by 2030.

“There is concern around the rapid growth in energy use, and the adverse effects that will have on climate goals,” he says. “What we need to do is look at it on a sector-by-sector basis. There are some areas of strategic importance to us as a country - and it is a case of managing those areas and managing that growth to ensure it aligns with our climate ambition and targets.”

Offshore and onshore wind will drive the transition to renewable power, says Walsh, who believes some large-scale projects will start to come online around 2025. First, however, he warns that grid and storage issues surrounding the intermittent nature of renewables need to be resolved.

Even with the challenges surrounding the sustainable energy transition, Walsh is optimistic Ireland can lead the way internationally. He hopes to make the SEAI front and centre on the country's journey and help Irish businesses develop climate change solutions to dial down the UN's ‘code red’ warning.

“This is a revolution,” he says. “And like in every revolution, there is an opportunity here.”

Source – The Irish Independent