Pat O’Doherty, chief executive of ESB, discusses the challenges and opportunities experienced during Covid-19 and how a green recovery will benefit all society
Reflecting on the past year and the impact that Covid-19 has had on ESB, its employees and the communities it serves, Pat O’Doherty, the energy company’s chief executive, says he is proud and appreciative of the company’s strong response. “It has been a challenging year for everyone; for ESB our two priorities during this pandemic are to keep the lights on for our customers while minding our health, safety and wellbeing,” he says. “To do that we have all had to adapt to new ways of working and living. I am proud of our collective efforts which have made this a relatively seamless process across each of our businesses.”
Speaking from his north Dublin home, O’Doherty explains how the group initiated its pandemic response plan last February, once cases started to rise internationally. This involved reconfiguring how its 7,500 employees could continue to work safely during the pandemic; ensuring its frontline staff in power stations and electricity networks could maintain critical services while more than 4,000 of its office-based employees were set up immediately to work from home.
Logistics aside, O’Doherty emphasises that support systems are key right now. “Working from home brings a new set of challenges for many, especially for those looking after children or supporting family members. Checking in with and supporting colleagues has been really important as we transitioned to remote working,” he says. The company has also ensured that its most vulnerable customers have been supported throughout the pandemic. “We are mindful that many of our customers are experiencing financial difficulties, so our supply company, Electric Ireland, has introduced various initiatives. This included, before Christmas, over €1 million in credit support for our most vulnerable customers.” ESB also increased its Energy for Generations and Wind Farm community funds to help voluntary organisations and charities affected financially by Covid-19. Its employees have played a vital role in how the organisation has responded to challenges in the past year. “Employees across the group were looking for ways that they could help, so we set up a Kindness Matters initiative which connected staff with volunteering opportunities,” says O’Doherty. “Some worked with Alone to help elderly people use technology to keep in touch with their families, others distributed PPE and some distributed food supplies within their communities. “Staff in ESB Networks also helped to deliver IT equipment to students learning from home as part of the Tech2Students campaign. It was very rewarding for all involved,” he adds.
Keeping the lights on is critical, but so is continuing essential work to ensure Ireland remains on track to meet its climate action targets. Despite lockdown restrictions, ESB invested more than €1 billion in strategic projects over the past year, including the completion of its largest wind farm at Grousemount in Co Kerry; the upgrade of its electric vehicle charging network; solar projects; investments in the network, as well as the installation of more than 240,000 smart meters across the country. O’Doherty says the Covid-19 recovery must be a green one. “ESB fully supports the ambitious government and EU 2030 climate plans. Considering that we have achieved 40 per cent of electricity from renewable sources over the past 10 years, getting to 70 per cent by 2030 is definitely achievable.”
Ireland’s ambition for a decarbonised electricity system and its success in renewable wind energy is lauded at European level. This recognition resulted in O’Doherty being appointed president of Eurelectric, the federation for the European electricity industry, which represents more than 3,500 companies in 32 countries. “I had previously been one of two vice-presidents at the organisation and was honoured to take up the role of president. It is important for Ireland to be involved in an international organisation like Eurelectric. It puts us at the forefront of policy development and thinking as the industry as a whole deals with challenges linked to Covid-19 while continuing the transition to a low-carbon future,” he says. O’Doherty welcomes the European Commission’s ambitions to reduce emissions by as much as 55 per cent by 2030, emphasising that decarbonisation of the electricity sector will lead to the transformation of the transport and heating sectors. “Different countries are coming at it from different starting points but with continued investment and by integrating both low-carbon and renewable energy across all sectors, we can achieve it. We need alignment of policy and regulation, and continued engagement among all stakeholders but there is much to be positive about,” he says. As part of his presidency, O’Doherty will host Eurelectric’s annual conference virtually in May, when he will get the opportunity to showcase Ireland’s climate achievements and ambitions while setting out a European agenda for the electricity industry. This ambition to create a low-carbon future and a green recovery requires personal participation and choices, says O’Doherty. “We have to look at how we use energy; the way we heat our homes and the cars we drive, with supports and incentives critical to people changing behaviours and habits. We all have a role to play in tackling climate change, and in ESB we are committed to playing our part by giving citizens the tools to deliver real change.”
While appreciative of being able to work from home, O’Doherty says he is looking forward to visiting the various projects the company is working on in communities across Ireland. “Ironically, not travelling has allowed me more time to virtually meet and talk to people across ESB. However, we have all recognised the importance of human connection, especially for new members or those who have been working in isolation, whether at home, in our generation stations, depots or out on our networks,” he adds. With its redeveloped headquarters at Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin set to open later this year, O’Doherty says ESB is adopting a new hybrid model of working, thus marking another milestone in the organisation’s more than 90-year history. “Covid-19 has accelerated our smart working plans, we have learned a lot and I look forward to the opportunities that this will bring to our workforce and the benefits to wider society as we continue to deliver a brighter future for generations to come.” For more information visit esb.ie #esbbrighterfuture