Ireland could be a natural home for the future green technology industries, and our growing population of PhD graduates are not only enticing inward investment, but they also have the potential to spearhead indigenous companies of the future, policy-makers believe.
“Energy issues are no longer just threats to the Irish economy, but are in fact real opportunities,” Professor Owen Lewis, chief executive of Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI), said recently. “Our PhDs are as bright and as talented as any in the world and on average a lot younger, giving us a real edge in competing in the smart society,” he added.
But what is the size of the green-technology industry prize and where will the jobs come from?
In the coming weeks, 12 clean-tech companies from around Ireland will descend on Silicon Valley to pitch for investment and sign deals. The 12 players, which include established players such as Automsoft, Wavebob and EpiSensor, will bring innovations in technologies that include solar, wind, biofuels, energy monitoring software and waste handling.
According to Enterprise Ireland, the Irish clean-tech sector employs 6,800 people and its exports are valued at $4bn. Enterprise Ireland supports 144 companies, which employ 3,400 people and with exports of $167m last year.
In recent months, the ESB said it was planning to create and sustain up to 6,000 jobs in the Irish economy through investment in upskilling and in new energy technologies such as electric cars, smart networks and alternative energy systems. The semi-state company said that 3,700 of the new positions will be in the development of new energy technologies.
Another semi-state, Bord na Móna, announced 300 new green-tech jobs as part of its vision to reduce CO2 per megawatt-hour by 50pc and meet its target of providing 500MW of wind energy in the next five years.
For students and parents looking out on today’s worrying economy and trying to figure out what would be the best route into this potentially burgeoning space, SEI’s Lewis points to a few areas. “The obvious ones are areas like ICT because software will be vital to the green economy in terms of areas like sensors and smart grids. Another area, of course, would be energy efficiency as well as renewable energy.
“Would it be too radical to suggest that in the future the only jobs will be green jobs? We continuously underestimate the scale of changes that we face.”
To elaborate on this novel train of thought, Lewis refers to the obvious problem of housing oversupply in Ireland and projects such as Dundalk 2020.
“Improving Ireland’s building stock in the coming years is a no-brainer, especially when it comes to social housing and doing different and complementary things such as putting in sustainable heating systems. There will be jobs for lawyers in terms of legal agreements, as well as for people putting in insulation.
“The opportunities for entrepreneurs will be incredible and many of these should be our brightest young people such as doctoral students. We need people coming out with new ideas and we need to fund them and encourage them. We will need homes that require zero energy and we’ll need a building industry organised to deliver a one-stop shop.”
Martin Hynes, chief executive of IRCSET, pointed out that Ireland requires a strong supply of PhD students and that contrary to criticisms of investment in PhDs in the recent An Bord Snip Nua report Ireland is fielding PhD graduates that are younger than their international counterparts.
“The average PhD graduate in Germany, for example, would be in their early 30s, while in Ireland a PhD graduate is typically under 25.
“Also, there has been criticism that many of these graduates actually leave to work overseas. This is actually something that is good for the country because they will accumulate valuable experience and will be an asset to the country on their return.
“Our role as supporters of graduate education is to ensure that sufficient skilled personnel are made available to meet a variety of possible futures; after all, the PhD that commences today will be finished post-doctoral studies in six years time – to a very different economic environment – we all hope.
“A common error is to think of innovation and commercialisation in very linear terms: someone is working on carbon nanotubes and then makes a market breakthrough in that domain. It rarely happens that way.”
He says that one of the initiatives under way between IRCSET and IBM is the creation of a social network that will connect Irish PhDs and organisations seeking research and business opportunities.
Seamus Mulconry, a former policy adviser to the Progressive Democrats, points out that amidst a global downturn now is the time to be building up our stock of research graduates who will be focused on the green-industry opportunities.
“A strong pool of talent is necessary to develop home-grown industry and will act as a magnet for inward investment. Ireland actually has the best wind and wave potential and has an excellent climate for growing biomass. We have all the foundations for a renewable energy sector here.
“The opportunity is that Ireland is a natural laboratory for green technology. R&D operations should be seen as pathfinders. That’s what PhD researchers are. Their numbers may not be huge, but there are instrumental in bringing in a large number of jobs if you think about companies like Wyeth in west Dublin.
“There are also opportunities for Ireland to become a net exporter of energy. To do that, we need to reconfigure the electricity grid and this should be a source of solid practical jobs for the future,” Mulconry adds.
“The context for the green-tech business has changed and now the fusion of a knowledge intensive economy with a sustainable economy goes to the heart of what a smart economy is all about.”
On 25 September, 2009, Intel, Microsoft and the US Embassy will join forces with IRCSET and Sustainable Energy Ireland to hold a conference themed ‘Innovation Fuelling the Smart Society.’ For further information, visit www.sei.ie.
Photo: Martin Hynes, CEO, IRCSET (from left); the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD; and Katarina Eckerberg, deputy director, Sustainable Energy Ireland.
By John Kennedy