Monday, 17 Feb 2020

De Pietro blows wind in the sails of DP

In the early 1990s, Simon De Pietro, the chief executive and founder of DP Energy, had a life-changing decision to make. With years of experience in engineering, De Pietro, who hails from Bristol, was keen for a fresh challenge. He had two offers. The first was a lucrative move to San Diego, California, to continue his burgeoning career as a gas turbine engineer. The other option, which he recognised as being more of a gamble than the riches which awaited him across the Atlantic, was to help his mother Maureen set up a renewable energy development business.

“It was around 1994, and I was all set to move to the US and work for Solar Turbines, but at that point, my mum started initiating wind stuff in the UK and Ireland,” he says. “While I had been helping peripherally, it really started to accelerate.”

The De Pietro family had been eyeing up a potential development, called Bessy Bell, in Co Tyrone. With no guarantees that they would receive a power contract for the site, Maureen, whose father was from Ireland, began sizing up opportunities in the Republic. “We said at the time, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to find somewhere in Ireland’,” says De Pietro. “We identified two sites; one over in west Clare and one in Leitrim. Somewhat ironically, not only did we get the contract for Bessy Bell but we got deals for the two sites in Ireland.

“All of a sudden, it went from us both saying ‘wouldn’t it be nice to get one’ to us getting all three. We were both left saying ‘what on earth do we do now?’

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“It came back full-circle to my decision point; am I going to go to San Diego and do this gas turbine stuff or are we going to try and work as a team and see what we can do with wind? I weighed it up and thought, ‘you know what? Wind is good’.”

With three deals bagged, DP Energy was born, and 57-year-old De Pietro hasn’t looked back since.

Last month, Spanish utility giant Iberdrola acquired DP Energy’s hybrid solar-wind energy farm in Port Augusta, Australia, in a deal worth AU$500m (€310m). The deal, which will see the company partner with Iberdrola during the construction phase, was sealed just before Christmas.

Of the early present from his Spanish partners, De Pietro says: “It was quite a celebratory Christmas and new year for us. A lot of work went into that deal, probably eight years’ worth before we met with Iberdrola.

“It’s a game-changing deal for us. It’s an important project, and it’ll help us go forward and fund other projects. As our projects get bigger, the more money-hungry they get, so it is quite exciting.”

DP Energy, which has several other onshore wind, solar and tidal projects live and under development in Canada, Australia and Scotland, has also lodged a foreshore application for a 720-megawatt (MW) offshore wind farm off the coast of Cork called Inis Ealga. The project could involve an investment worth an estimated €1.76bn.

On the Inis Ealga project, which could generate enough power for more than 700,000 homes, De Pietro says: “It’s exciting, but it’s not going to happen next week. It’s a five to seven-year time frame.”

The success of DP Energy in the past year has been on the back of a lot of work, a lot of travelling and De Pietro’s attention to detail. According to DP Energy the company has a portfolio, including early-stage projects and those in planning, of betweeen 1.5-2GW globally, with the potential for even more.

“We’ve been around longer than most,” he says. “If I was to describe DP, we believe in renewables, but we recognise that money has to come from somewhere and it needs a degree of pragmatism.

“We know what is necessary for a project to look good from a financing and investment perspective. We can find the fatal flaws before an investor, financier or bank can, and fix them before they can’t be fixed.

“Our success is all about our track record; if it can be built, then we will build it.”

Born in Sheffield, De Pietro moved away when he was young and was raised in Bristol While growing up, a career in renewables was just about the furthest thing from his mind.

De Pietro wanted to become a lawyer, following in the footsteps of his mother, but soon changed his mind. “When I saw my mum doing law, I just thought, ‘hmm, maybe not’,” he says. “Engineering came naturally after that, partly because I’d always enjoyed taking things apart and then, not always successfully, putting them back together again. I like to think that has improved over time.”

Completing a degree in engineering science at the University of Liverpool, De Pietro cut his teeth at Lucas Aerospace in Burnley, which eventually became AIT. While with the company, he worked on low-emission industrial gas turbines for clients including engineering and technology giants Siemens and ABB.

He then moved to European Gas Turbines in Lincoln, where he worked with General Electric. Soon after, in the early 1990s, he considered a move to California to join Solar Turbines.

While contemplating the US move, he was also helping his mother with a couple of renewable energy projects, inspired by a trip to the cinema. “The whole thing tied around this Imax cinema movie Blue Planet, which basically included photography of what we [the human race] were doing to the planet,” he says. “There were photographs of Madagascar where you could see the rivers running red with mud due to the deforestation, and burning fires with land being cleared.

“It all looped around. We thought if we could do something with wind, then we could be doing something about it [the environment].”

Armed with a passion for climate change, plus the small matter of gaining three wind farm contracts across the island of Ireland, De Pietro decided to reject the offer to move to California. In 1996, he upped sticks with his family to set up DP Energy in Clontarf in Dublin.

The family’s time in Dublin didn’t last long. With interest in the business accelerating, the family decided to move nearer the west coast, where nearly all of their wind farms were located.

In 2000, De Pietro’s partner in a potential Waterford wind farm made a surprising suggestion: base your renewable energy company inside a renovated stable and mill storehouse in the small town of Buttevant, Co Cork.

“He just happened to be driving past the auctioneers in Buttevant and had a look through the window. He saw the mill house office and thought that it would suit us perfectly. We came and had a look at it and thought, ‘this is alright’.

“It’s a strange place to have an international business, but the roads to Dublin are good, we can get a train there in two-and-a-half hours, we have international airports down the road in Cork and Shannon. We can go pretty much anywhere.”

From its unlikely location next to the River Awbeg, DP Energy has thrived. It developed projects across the island, soon attracting the attention of deep-pocketed suitors. In 2008, De Pietro decided to sell, agreeing to a deal with ESB and Bord Gáis to take its Irish wind portfolio for a sum believed to be around €30m. The deal marked the beginning of a new chapter for DP Energy as De Pietro’s ambitions grew beyond this island.

“We started looking at two things: different jurisdictions – like Australia and Canada – and then different technologies, like solar, batteries, ocean energy,” he says. “It was kind of a different thing for us; we had worked on those [ESB] sites for several years. We were happy with the deal.”

In 2014, DP Energy became Europe’s largest independent developer of tidal power, with an overall portfolio of tidal energy projects worth 330MW. In Scotland, it opened the 130MW Hadyard Hill wind farm, which, at the time, was the largest onshore consented wind farm in the UK.

In April 2014, DP Energy also acquired the development rights to the Westray South proposal in Orkney in Scotland. The tidal energy project had previously been awarded a 200MW agreement for lease from the Crown Estate in March 2010.

DP Energy then went big in Canada, opening a 60MW wind farm near Ontario in 2015. More recently, it won approval for a 27MW solar park in south-east Calgary, where it is also pushing for an additional 35MW site. It is aiming to expand a separate permitted solar farm in Alberta, taking the development from 200MW to 300MW.

Success in Australia has been hard-fought. Besides the AU$500m sale of the Port Augusta Energy Park project, De Pietro has submitted a 550MW hybrid solar and wind energy park for evaluation in Queensland, with other projects in the pipeline. According to De Pietro, some of his projects have been hampered by the massive wildfires.

“There is a little bit of a delay there at the moment,” he says. “We have a couple of projects in New South Wales which, while not directly affected by the fires at the moment, are very close.

“The landowners and parties we would normally be talking to have other priorities at the moment. It is a tragic thing.” However, despite the delays, De Pietro is ambitious to keep on growing. “We are looking at what else we can do,” he says. “We want to further our stakes in Canada and Australia, and enter the US. We want to look at more exotic locations in South America and south-east Asia, but we would have to partner with local developers.”

De Pietro is a big believer in Ireland’s potential as a leader in renewable energy, but feels far more needs to be done to up the pace of development.

“Ireland could do more and has the opportunity to do more,” he says. “Two turbines in the centre of Germany are probably the same as one turbine at a decent site in Ireland. I am of the mind that [the more renewables] here, the better.

“Planning is slow here, certainly from an offshore perspective. There is activity on planning policy, and that needs to gel.

“Some of the onshore things have been frustrating because of how much time it takes, particularly with the legal challenges which, in my personal view, can be vexatious. While everyone should have rights to their opinion, it should really be based on something material.”

De Pietro hopes the development of renewables in Ireland can be accelerated. As well as the Inis Ealga offshore wind farm off the coast of Cork, he hopes to explore further sites off the west coast – both wind and tidal. He also has ambitions to develop further onshore wind farms here.

De Pietro says the younger generation have blown wind into the sails of renewables, boosting the sector.

Describing 17-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg as “awesome”, he says the next generation is pushing climate change further up the political agenda. He just hopes that it is not a case of too little, too late.

“I believe that renewables are both inevitable and necessary. The only question now is how bad a job we will do on the planet in the interim.”

Curriculum Vitae

Name

Simon De Pietro

Age

57

Position

Chief executive of DP Energy

Lives

Buttevant, Co Cork

Education

University of Liverpool

Previous experience

Engineer with Lucas Aerospace, AIT and European Gas Turbines

Family

Wife, Nancy De Pietro

Pastimes

Offshore sailing with his wife on their boat Lila – the couple hold the record for the Marion-Bermuda Race

Favourite film

The Irishman

Favourite TV series

Peaky Blinders

Business lessons

What has been your best moment in business?

There has been no ‘one best moment’. Every time I see one of our wind projects get built it’s a ‘moment’, and it’s a doubly good moment to share that experience with any of the DP team that haven’t seen it happen before.

What advice would you give to Government on boosting renewables?

Policy and consistency, resolving planning issues and implementing necessary grid infrastructure. At a fundamental level, we need to be ambitious on targets and be bold on delivery timing. We have to deliver on climate change; there is no Plan B.

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