Meet the Irish leading light in Spain’s solar power game

As part of our ‘Irish Abroad’ series, Declan O’Halloran of Quintas Energy on Seville living, why Spanish “siesta” clichés are outdated, how political uncertainty hasn’t affected business and the solar opportunities available to, yes, Ireland…

Meet the Irish leading light in Spain’s solar power game

Declan O'Halloran, MD of Quintas Energy

Acting as an airborne example of how the sky quite literally is the limit when it comes to the potential of solar power, since lifting off from an Abu Dhabi runway in March 2015, the Solar Impulse 2 has been flying around the globe on nothing but totally clean energy.

Soaring over the Egyptian pyramids without a drop of fuel in the tank to its penultimate destination of Cairo this week, the plane with 17,000 solar cells on its wings was making its – admittedly relatively slow – journey from the Andalusian city of Seville.

Just another stop-off on the promotional jaunt of the Solar Impulse 2, Seville is in fact a noteworthy landmark in the renewables game, and one with a strong Irish influence.

It is the home of Quintas Energy, the company founded by Clare man Declan O’Halloran that has been turning “sunlight into money” for companies since 2008.

Now the United Kingdom’s largest asset manager and back office provider in the field, and managing solar farms in California and Colorado in the US, Venice and Sicily in Italy and parts of France, Quintas Energy is a truly global concern in 2016.

“We’ve got a skillset that isn’t limited by jurisdiction,” says O’Halloran, who studied in UCC and UL but soon found himself doing business around the world, including time spent in the Middle East.

“What we do can be done anywhere.”

A finalist in the ‘Emerging’ category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards 2010, and with a fluency in several languages, O’Halloran is the perfect fit to kickstart a series looking at those EoY alumni making waves abroad...

Ireland, energy & the sun

Staying close to home to begin with, Ireland’s ability to meet its renewable energy targets by 2020 has been questioned in recent months. While 28.4% of our electricity comes from renewables, the European Commission is expecting that to be 40% in just four years. Is O’Halloran’s old abode putting enough emphasis on sustainable sources?

“The truth is always somewhere in the middle of everything you hear the different sides to the story telling you…” he opines.

“Solar energy has a place in every energy mix of every country... And that applies to Ireland as much as it applies to everywhere else.

“You do not need a cloudless sky for solar form to function.                   

“Solar form will function perfectly well with what we call 'ambiental light'. The kind of light that allows us to just get on with business everyday no matter how grey and cloudy it appears to be.”

While that’s heartening, it’s not quite Spain.

“It was absolutely normal that Ireland would be last into solar energy. It may benefit from being last in. But it would have been ridiculous if the Spanish with twice the irradiation that Ireland had didn't considered it. 

“If you could make energy from rain, wouldn't the Irish be negligent not to generate energy from rain? We'd be the Saudi Arabia of rain-based energy!”

A Quintas Energy solar farm

Sadly, the sun does a far superior job turning on household appliances than the occasional squally shower. It would seem, then, like a no-brainer for Quintas Energy to have its HQ in a city with an average July temperature of 28°C. And you would imagine the Spanish governments of the past decade or two have wholeheartedly embraced the sector. Not so, says O’Halloran. 

“It's been tragic,” he sighs.

“Leading up to the financial crash of the Lehman Brothers fiasco, [the government] had seen 14 years of growth.

“That kept a lot of things going and it gave them confidence to support a lot of initiatives.

“When the crash came suddenly support for these things disappeared. What they did was a terrible disservice to investors who invested in the early days. But they did create something that even they didn't expect – they didn't think that the Spanish business class was as entrepreneurial as it was.”

When companies such as Quintas Energy realised the Spanish domestic market was stagnating, they had two choices to make: go abroad or go home. O’Halloran calls it an “existential moment”, and eventually he and his colleagues decided solar energy’s universal application would see them through.

“You can put a solar panel anywhere. I don't see anyone putting wind turbines on the International Space Station! But there are solar panels there.”

The big thinking paid off.

“Suddenly some amazing companies flourished… You think to yourself: 'can I do this in Italy? Can I do this in France and can I do this in the UK?’ Maybe someday I'll do it in Ireland. Already we've proven that we can do it in the US.”

Spain's political stasis

With 85% of its staff in Seville, however, Spain’s economic situation remains a key concern for Quintas.

Politically, things are less than ideal. Since a general election in December resulted in a hung parliament, a caretaker government led by Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been in place. A second general election in June hasn’t particularly helped the situation, with the Popular Party – in power since 2011 – again failing to secure a majority. Meanwhile, Rajoy is growing ever more isolated.

One would assume it’s a potentially disastrous state of affairs for the Eurozone’s fourth largest economy, but O’Halloran reports that the business world has been ticking along remarkably smoothly.

“You can actually have a country of 45 million people,” says O’Halloran, “without active political leadership with an active majority in government, and it still does okay.

“It brings into question more than ever before, what does active political leadership mean in the context of a globalising world?

“These people don't make a difference. Or they haven’t learnt to make a difference, because now they're middle men. They're not the leaders of our country, they're not the shapers of the destiny of our country. They're the mere middlemen in a process. And if they were better at being middlemen rather than assuming the airs of being masters of the universe... they might be more effective at what they're doing.

“It's possibly one of the reasons why regionalisation has broken out across the European Union. Why smaller regions feel empowered through non-violent methods.

“The Basque Country in Spain went through decades of terrible local political and violent manifestations of this. Whereas Catalonia recently, through purely political means, has been somewhat successful in asserting its independence and maybe going further.”

Quintas Energy's Seville office

Moving from the political to the personal, the Quintas boss says life in Spain is miles away from many people’s preconceptions.

“Most people who've had some experience of Spain have maybe experienced a part of it that has reached out to what tourists want. 

“In a sense, it becomes that compromise between Spain truly is and what British and Irish tourists want.

“So you go inland, and you start to find the Spaniards as they are. What you'll find is a country that's not brimming with opportunity... You've got to find your way up.

“You should know a few things about Spain – it's very diverse, amongst themselves they may or may not consider themselves more Spanish, but they have strong local identities. 

“They have three different climates, they have different cuisines... So you look at the country and think ‘this is not just one place’.

“It also has a certain sense of its relationship to the Latin American world, which makes them a little bit more internationally-minded than some other countries. But the one thing that it does have [in common] with Ireland is the collapse in confidence – or belief, even – in the institutions that got us through most of the 20th Century. The monarchy, the church, the judiciary, the political system, the banking system.”

For O’Halloran, the adaptable, open nature of Spain will be its saving grace. Comparing it to Greece, which looks bad as a “going concern” because it is not able to trade, Spain has a chance to solve its problems.

“You still feel like you're part of a going concern. As the Italians say about themselves: ‘I don't know how this country works, but it does work.’ The same thing is happening in Spain.”

In April, Prime Minister Rajoy announced his plans to completely scrap the siesta tradition of taking a three-hour afternoon break from work to bring businesses in line with their European counterparts. As O’Halloran notes, it’s already a thing of the past for most.

“It's a relic,” he says. “It's one of those things that we hear of. It allows us to continue to believe that the Spanish in some way are slightly feckless and not as hard-working as we are... But wouldn't it be nice?

“In reality, the death of the siesta came with air conditioning.

“If you're part of the world, you're going to move with the rhythms of the world. Certainly within Europe. [During] my time in the Middle East I found that they have weekends on different days from us, they've different religious feasts... But as part of the European Union, the Spanish would be silly to operate a siesta. Those are important parts of the day when you're getting your business done with your colleagues.”

With Quintas Energy, O’Halloran still has plenty of business to get done. Currently based in London, he sees opportunities in North Africa, Latin America and even further afield.

“It’s always nice,” he says, “when clients drag you along with them. And we've got some clients who want us to look at the potential in places like Australia.”

Essentially, he’s not pining for Ireland at all.

“I suffer from not one iota of nostalgia,” he concludes. “I feel more like I've brought it with me. I couldn't miss it because I never forgotten it and I live it.

“There are things you hear all the time that are beautiful in your own culture, but you don't have to be there. It's very easy to be an Irishman abroad. We have no sense of historic guilt, we distinguish ourselves from the bad guys of history and we feel almost like we get a free pass for a lot of things.

“It's not hard to stay in touch with Ireland. The first time I went to Spain in 1987, it was heard to get there, there was no English press, the internet didn't exist.

“When you were away, you could occasionally send a letter or you could go to a place where they had lots of telephones and you'd form a queue to make an international call. That's all gone.

“I can feel for somebody who does suffer from nostalgia. But it will never be like it once was for the Irish, where you left Ireland and you broke your connections.”

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