‘There are huge opportunities for Ireland in the energy sector’

19 May 2020

Donna Gartland. Image: Codema

Donna Gartland of Codema discusses Dublin’s low-carbon transition, what we can learn from our European neighbours, and how an electrical internship led her into the energy sector.

Donna Gartland is CEO of Codema, where she is responsible for driving the organisation’s mission to accelerate Dublin’s low-carbon transition through local-level energy policy, planning and projects. She is working with the four Dublin local authorities and other stakeholders to help the county become carbon neutral by 2050.

Gartland is also CEO of the Irish District Energy Association and is pursuing a PhD with UCC’s Energy Policy and Modelling Group.

‘The solutions are out there, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’ve recently taken up the role of chief executive officer at Codema, Dublin’s energy agency, where I have been working for the past six years. Codema is committed to leading the low-carbon transition in Dublin. We are energy and climate mitigation advisers to the four Dublin local authorities.

I am responsible for Codema’s strategic vision, keeping the company on track to meet our goals and objectives, employee satisfaction and growth, financial stability and business development.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

It’s difficult working for an SME in the innovation space with various clients to organise and prioritise effectively – and it’s really important to protect yourself from burnout. I’m still learning, I think I’ve read every book and trialled every productivity tool available (does anyone stick to pomodoros?) and I still haven’t perfected it.

I’m currently concentrating on two main things: learning to say no to things that don’t add value and just add stress; and that to organise my own working life, I need to look at a macro-level at my team and our organisational structure, which needs to have the flexibility to allow me and all employees to work as effectively as we can.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The biggest challenge we face is transitioning Dublin from being almost completely reliant on fossil fuels to become a carbon-neutral capital by 2050. Thirty years seems like a long time, but we only have to look at the pace of change over the last 10 years and the rapid institutional, system and cultural change that’s now needed to understand how big that challenge is.

Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and 2050 are now based on non-ETS sector emissions – without getting too technical, this basically means for the energy sector, the focus is now on transport and heat rather than electricity. We continue to achieve great reductions in emissions in the electricity sector, but heat and transport, which are inherently local-level systems and issues, are much harder to decarbonise than electricity due to the hundreds of thousands of individual stakeholder decisions required to make change – each household retrofit, each business practice, each individual’s trip to work or school.

But the solutions are out there, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We work with cities all over Europe to learn and adapt solutions and apply them here, working with the Dublin local authorities to prove concepts and pioneer new solutions.

We are also developing an ‘evidence-led’ approach to tackling emissions in Dublin, researching and building detailed hourly energy-system models of the energy demands and low-carbon sources across the region to identify the best solutions based on the unique opportunities presented here in Dublin.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

There are huge opportunities for Ireland to capitalise on in the energy sector that would allow us to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on imported fossil fuels. Wind is obviously one area that Ireland is capitalising on, but storage is an issue when we move to integrate more renewable electricity on the grid.

Our heating sector is almost completely reliant on gas and oil, yet we have power plants and large industries dumping huge amounts of waste heat and we have huge untapped geothermal and solar thermal opportunities.

We are working on a local-level solution that can help to solve both of these issues – decarbonise heat while also integrating more renewable electricity – and it’s called district energy. District energy systems create a local-level heating (and, if required, cooling) grid which delivers heat to buildings, and the heat used by customers is metered and billed. It works in much the same way as the electricity grid.

These systems are widely used across Europe, and supply 90pc of all heat in sustainable cities such as Copenhagen and Stockholm. We are working with the local authorities in Dublin to bring the first district energy schemes to the region, from early feasibility stages, right through to funding, procurement and contracting.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

It took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to do, and I tried everything from art college to studying geography and archaeology (Jurassic Park really mis-sold this one to me), to an electrical apprenticeship!

It was during my time serving as an apprentice that I developed a real interest in the energy sector – I’d never studied any science subjects at school (I went to a very traditional all-girls catholic school – home economics was as close as I got to science), but I found it really interesting and I excelled in the electrical apprenticeship exams.

After I qualified, I wanted to learn more and I knew that renewable energy was the future. I got my bachelor’s in energy and environmental engineering, but it was really the master’s in energy planning I did in Denmark that opened my mind to all the low-carbon opportunities we were not taking advantage of in Ireland.

Denmark is a small country like Ireland, but has managed to develop a highly renewable energy system and a huge export industry around renewable energy, particularly wind. It was a real indicator to me that we need to learn from our European neighbours and adapt and bring new solutions to Ireland.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Putting my work ahead of my personal life is probably my biggest mistake – I find it hard to say no to things I enjoy working on and that I am interested in, but of course you can’t do everything. I got to a stage where I felt a constant pang of guilt when I was doing anything but working or researching because I had committed to so many things and didn’t want to let people down, and it wasn’t good for my mental health.

I’m just starting to learn from this experience now as I have been forced to slow down and reflect during the lockdown. I’ve realised I can’t keep pushing my personal to-do list to the bottom of my work to-do list! As my mam keeps telling me, “your epitaph will just be your CV!”

How do you get the best out of your team?

We are a small company, and in a small company it’s very important to find people who fit with the organisation’s culture. We are a not-for-profit company working for the public good, so it’s a nice area to work in and connects with a lot of people’s inherent values.

You get the best from your team when they enjoy coming to work every day. We work in a very collaborative way on a variety of different projects, so the team are constantly learning and stimulated. For a company like Codema, where we are working on changing the current norms, it’s extremely important to have and to instil a growth mindset in the team.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I understand too well the lack of diversity in the energy sector – having been one of only a handful of females on building sites of thousands of guys, the only female in any year of my bachelor degree programme right up until I graduated, and repeatedly I’m one of only a handful of female speakers at conferences.

I think there needs to be changes from a secondary school level, to the way technical jobs are worded in advertisements, all the way up to equal parental leave rights. We strongly advocate diversity in Codema, in terms of gender but also background and experiences – diversity is proven to improve team performance, so it makes sense to us from a business perspective too.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Yes, I was very lucky to have a great mentor and manager when I started at Codema who believed in me and gave me the support to grow and to develop projects that I was passionate about. It’s taught me that it’s very important to support people to be confident in their abilities – and maybe give them that gentle shove off the edge of the cliff that they need!

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • Slow at Work by Aoife McElwain – for anyone who works in a field they are passionate about but feels like it is swallowing up their whole life, this is the book for you
  • Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck – an insight into ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets and what mindset does to a person’s ability to be successful
  • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown – this book taught me a lot about what criticism I should and shouldn’t listen to!
  • Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund – it’s a very refreshing break away from the current media-driven information age where people get their ‘facts’ from the likes of Fox News and where good news doesn’t make the headlines
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Coffee and wine! No, I’m just kidding.

I use distraction blockers across all my devices, such as Stay Focusd on my browser and Focus mode on Pixel. I’ve realised since working from home the value of having a block of time in my calendar every week without meetings to focus and to get some deep work done. I also always have blank doodle sheets beside me for developing new ideas – of course technology is essential, but for brainstorming ideas, drawing is an undervalued tool.

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