Michael McGrath TD, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, was Engineers Ireland's guest of honour at the institution's recent national conference, held in the Convention Centre Dublin. Combatting climate change, Ireland’s ‘blue energy’ potential, Helsinki’s new metro extension and a supergrid for Europe were also issues discussed throughout the conference which was titled ‘Engineering in a time of challenge; innovation, decarbonisation and the role of engineers.

Minister Michael McGrath TD with John Power, president, Engineers Ireland.

Opening the conference, Engineers Ireland president John Power said: "Our 2022 conference theme and the information that will be exchanged here today is very timely.

Significant societal challenges

"First, in the world we find ourselves in, post a major pandemic and Brexit, and the difficulties that we are experiencing with a war in Ukraine, climate change, increasing energy costs, energy vulnerability, political instability worldwide and high inflation, the expertise of our professional engineering membership will be very important in finding practical and cost-effective solutions to the significant societal challenges we will face now and into the future.

"The 2020 Programme for Government committed Ireland to reducing carbon emissions by 51% by 2030 and becoming a carbon neutral country by no later than 2050. As engineers, sustainability and getting to net zero needs to be at the fore front of our minds.

"In Ireland we have agreed a climate law, carbon budgets and sectoral ceilings. Our focus now must be on implementation. The reliable provision of energy, water and materials in ways that allow us as a country and the industries located here to meet our sustainability targets is an absolute essential. Sustainable industry practices are likewise essential and I look forward very much to hearing about some of these practices today in our sessions.  

"I hope we will be inspired and learn new ideas from each other which will further improve our work and efforts in this critically important area of sustainable practices.

"There is just one further point I would like to make about sustainability. Engineering, with its capacity to develop solutions to society’s biggest challenges, has a clear role to play in the development of more sustainable solutions.

As a professional body with 25,000 members, we will act as a leading voice for sustainability. Under the environmental and social obligations of our Code of Ethics, (and as an organisation that supports the UN sustainable development goals), our members shall, for example, promote the principles and practices of sustainable development and the needs of present and future generations, and shall foster environmental awareness within the profession and among the public.

Engineers Ireland has developed a Sustainability Framework which is being delivered as part of our organisational strategy and progress will be communicated to members.

Engineers Ireland stands ready to play its part in Ireland’s climate ambitions and it will be engineers like you, who are amongst us today, who will be integral to the delivery of projects that will support communities which are pivotal to Ireland’s prosperity and sustainability."

Minister McGrath acknowledged several areas of Engineers Ireland's work – with apprenticeships (and the encouragement of them); the promotion of the Chartered Engineer Title; and the work of the organisation's STEPS Team. "Engineers are focused on solutions," he said.

"Your knowledge and skills are essential to improving the quality of life and wellbeing of our people", and described the conference as an opportunity to acknowledge the advancements that have been made, and to "underline just how central the engineering profession is to the future we all strive to create". (Read Minister McGrath's speech here.)

Corporation tax shock

Professor John FitzGerald, an adjunct professor in economics at Trinity College Dublin, was the next speaker. A former research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), has has, over his career in the ESRI published extensively in the fields of macroeconomics, energy economics and environmental economics. He is a member of the government’s Climate Change Advisory Council and was its inaugural chairperson from 2016 to 2020.  He has master’s degrees in history and economics from University College Dublin and is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Prof FitzGerald spoke of the energy price shock (similar to the shock in 1974) and a corporation tax shock – making Ireland different from the rest of Europe; the likelihood of a recession in some countries but potentially not Ireland because of the structure of our economy; that the gas price shock is likely to last longer and the government would need to target its support.

He described the Irish economy as having "outgrown its clothes"; the role of engineers would be in delivering on the challenges in terms of what the Ireland of the future looks like. In relation to tackling climate change, he said people's behaviour and the importance of understanding the social sciences were key. He said the country's planning process and regulation needed to be overhauled and made fit for purpose.

The next speaker was Dr Eddie O'Connor. He is the founding force behind SuperNode Ltd based in Dublin. SuperNode is a cutting-edge global technology development company that designs and delivers superconducting connection systems to connect renewable generation and increase grid interconnection in mature markets. 


Dr O’ Connor has pioneered the concept of the ‘SuperGrid’ in response to the challenge of decarbonising electricity generation in Europe and formulated the initial proposals for the SuperGrid in 2001, which resulted in the establishment of ‘The Friends of the SuperGrid’ (FOSG), the precursor to much of the consortia that have moved the concept forward since then. 

A lifelong career in the energy sector in Ireland, Dr O’Connor worked for ESB and Bord na Mona before he founded Airtricity in 1998 which became a leading global renewable energy company with developments throughout Europe and North America. Airtricity was sold in 2008 to E.on and Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) for €1.8bn. In 2008, Dr O’Connor set up Mainstream Renewable Power with projects spanning across 5 continents. Mainstream was sold to Aker Horizons in 2021.

Dr O'Connor spoke of the energy accumulation in our atmosphere; wind and solar generation in Europe, ie, the extreme complementarity of wind from the north of Europe and solar from the Mediterranean.

He also talked about what profound interconnection would mean for Europe between the countries; the need for a supergrid for Europe, a meshed electricity transmission system composed of a series of cables which connect to sub stations, (like routers in an IT system) and the overall concept of super connectivity. 

Rolls-Royce and SMRs

The next speaker was Paul Stein – an engineer and chairman of Rolls-Royce SMR Limited, the business established by Rolls-Royce to develop and manufacture low-cost nuclear power.  Prior to this, he was the chief technology officer of Rolls-Royce plc, responsible for the group’s technology strategy and balance of engineering and technology investment.

Before joining Rolls-Royce in 2010, Stein was the director general, science and technology, in the Ministry of Defence responsible for the UK’s national investment in defence science and technology.

Leading up to 2006, he had many years of experience in the communications and electronics industries including technology leadership positions with Siemens, Thales and Philips.

Stein serves on several UK government advisory committees including an appointment in March 2020 to the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering from King’s College London in 1978. 

'SMRs and a competitive source of continuous clean energy'

Stein said: “SMRs offer a highly competitive source of continuous clean energy.  With enhanced safety and security built in, their relatively small size compared to the conventional nuclear plant means they take up less than a 10th of the space, require significantly less capital outlay, need less staff, and are not exposed to the vagaries of construction in the open environment, yet still provide a safe, robust and reliable carbon-free energy source. 

"The whole of Europe finds itself in an energy crisis, and clean-energy from SMRs offers real potential to support a country’s national grid and safeguard key economic areas relating to heating, data centres, and heavy industry, as well as complementing the production of e-fuels to drive sustainable economic progress.

“The demand for electricity will continue to grow in any reasonable future scenario, and fossil fuel waste demonstrably impacts our climate negatively as we all know. 

"By comparison the amount of nuclear waste from an SMR is minute and is managed safely and securely. Wind and solar are intermittent renewables that require a back-up source of energy such as storage, but this option is technically challenging, at scale. In a nutshell, with public and political support, nuclear has got to be in the energy mix if we are to reduce the global use of fossil fuels, which is critical for decarbonisation.” 

High-voltage electricity transmission network

The next speaker is Róisín Quinn, OBE, engineer, and director of customer connections, National Grid. It own the high-voltage electricity transmission network in England and Wales.

It is responsible for making sure electricity is transported safely and efficiently from where it's produced to where it's needed. Quinn joined National Grid PLC’s graduate programme in 2004, after graduating with a first from University College Dublin and winning one of the Engineering Graduate Association Medals. Since then, she has held several senior leadership roles across the group. She is accountable for connecting customers to the network.

Formally she was head of national control for National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator), accountable for the real-time operation of Britain’s electricity system and the systems and processes that support it. She was also the ESO’s first chief engineer.

In 2022 Quinn was awarded an OBE in the honorary awards to foreign nationals list announced as part of the late Queen Elizabeth II's birthday honours list, for services to the electricity system, energy security and decarbonisation. 

She spoke about how the world was embarking on an energy transition; the skill resources that were needed; the new specialist technology required (and new providers) to accelerate to net zero; the importance of a good global supply chain to ensure we have the right materials and equipment; to ask ourselves are we innovating? are we using data? and what is the societal impact of all of this.

Quinn also spoke about the work at the Deeside Centre for innovation – a huge step forward in testing and control. 

(In Part II, we will look at how to secure a net zero energy system in delivering 'Net Zero 2040'; Ireland’s ‘blue energy’ potential; Helsinki’s new metro extension; and a number of other issues.)