What’s it like to work in planning?

As Senior Planning Project Manager, Aoife’s focus is on developing a new generation of onshore wind and solar projects to help Ireland achieve its target of generating 70% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. Find out more about what her role involves, her advice to young people wanting to follow in her footsteps, and the future developments in renewables she’s most excited about.

 

Day-to-day working life in renewables

Q. Where are you right now?
A. I’m at home in Dublin. While we’re still in lockdown, I’m working from home, but I hope to be back in the office three days a week soon. I miss office life – and I was robbed of my first Christmas party!

Q. What does your role as Senior Planning Project Manager involve?
A. I look after the planning applications for onshore wind and solar developments in Ireland. This involves managing the environmental impact studies and community engagement. And, at the moment, getting our solar projects construction-ready too.

Q. What’s a typical day like? And has it changed since Covid-19?
A. My day-to-day job hasn’t really changed with the pandemic. In Ireland we’re focusing heavily on trying to find new onshore wind sites. So part of my job is to review potential sites from a planning and environmental perspective. Then, when we’ve found a suitable site, I take it through the planning process – for example, pulling together the environmental impact assessment report, speaking to communities about the project and so on.

 

Developing a career in the renewables industry 

Q. How did you get into this area?
A. I’ve known I wanted to work in renewables since I was 10 and saw my first onshore wind farm, while on holiday in Spain with my family. 

After school, I studied Geography at Trinity College Dublin, and followed this with a Masters in Environmental Sustainability at the university of Edinburgh. It was very focused on renewables and I did my dissertation in offshore wind energy.

This helped me get onto the E.ON graduate scheme as an Environmental Consultant. I stayed with E.ON for six years in the UK, before moving back home to Ireland to work in onshore wind development for another German company, ABO Wind. I joined EDF Renewables in August 2020.

I’ve always worked in planning and project management. I have some experience in offshore wind, marine energy and batteries; but my career to date has been mainly focused on onshore wind. Since starting at EDF Renewables, I’ve had my first taste of solar, as we acquired the Wexford Solar portfolio. This is a really new area for me, and I love the opportunity to expand my experience.

Q. Are there any subjects you’d recommend a young person studies to get into renewables?
A. An environmental degree is a good idea if you want to get into the planning and environmental studies side of things that I’m involved in. But any engineering degree can get you far. And internships or placements of any kind are so helpful. I did an internship at an environmental consultancy, for example.

The graduate scheme at E.ON was such a good opportunity for my first job, as I got to see every part of the business and work across all different technologies: from gas and coal plants, to offshore wind, wave and tidal energies. It was brilliant at giving me experience and helping to build up a network in the company. It was the best start to my career I could have asked for.

 

Diversity and inclusion within the renewables sector

Q. Do you think the industry could do more to promote diversity and inclusion?
A. My experience has been really positive. The energy industry is probably more male-dominated, but I don’t think I’ve ever suffered any discrimination. In the Irish team at EDF Renewables, I think we have more women than men, so we’re definitely flying the flag!

I also sit on the planning committee for Wind Energy Ireland. We discuss planning issues in wind energy and there’s a really good, diverse mix of people in the group.

 

Love what you do; do what you love

Q. What’s your favourite part of your job?
A. I love the variety. I’m working on probably 10 different projects at the moment and they’re all at different stages of development.

There are greenfield projects, which I’m investigating to see if they’re suitable from a planning perspective, and advanced solar projects that are about to be constructed, where I’m doing the final work to discharge from a planning perspective. I am also working on an application for an extension to an existing solar project and an onshore wind farm that’s about to be launched soon in the public domain. There’s so much variety to keep me busy, and I’m always learning a lot.

Q. And your least favourite?
A. Probably the time it takes to see a project from greenfield right through to planning consent. It’s the nature of the planning process that it takes so long. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will change, either. In Ireland, a lot of applications go all the way to the courts for judicial review. So, if anything, I think the timescales are getting even longer. 

Q. How has your job been affected by Covid-19?
A. As I started with EDF Renewables during the pandemic, I’ve only met my colleagues face-to-face once – back in August, when the restrictions had lifted a bit. Other than that, my interactions with my team have been virtual. So I’m really looking forward to seeing them all again.

Q. How has the pandemic affected the industry?
A. During the highest level of lockdown, it restricted us having surveyors, ecologists and other specialists out on site. This has slowed down the timescales for our planning applications. But, other than that, we’re able to do a lot of our work online. And some activities are considered essential, regardless of lockdown – such as the construction of the new Wexford solar project.

 

The future role of renewables

Q. How would you say your role is helping Ireland achieve its net zero targets?
A. I’ve always been driven in my work because I believe renewable energy is such a good solution to tackling climate change. The Irish Government has committed to achieving 70% of electricity from renewables by 2030. So they have some ambitious objectives. I hope that getting planning permission on the projects I work on will contribute directly to Ireland’s renewable energy targets.

Q. What do you see for the future of renewables in Ireland?
A. The last decade has really been focused on onshore wind. I think the next decade will be more diverse: with more solar, a lot more offshore wind and battery storage projects obtaining planning permission too.

The UK is streets ahead of Ireland in terms of offshore wind. There’s a proper offshore planning process for all areas (e.g. marine spatial plans) and very well-defined consents processes. Here, in Ireland, that’s just beginning. So the biggest difference between the UK and Ireland is the development of our offshore wind markets.

Q. Which areas of innovation are you most excited about? 
A. I’m always excited by new, bigger turbines. From a planning perspective, the bigger they get, the fewer you need; and this can make them more acceptable from a public point of view. We’re seeing onshore wind turbines going up to 6 MW now, whereas a few years ago, 3 MW was the biggest you’d ever see. Similarly, when I worked in the UK, we were looking at 130m tip heights; now it’s 180m. Advances in the development of the technology have been really impressive.

Q. What would you say to a young person if they were interested in a career in renewables?
A. I would definitely encourage them to join the industry, as the sector is continuously growing. Climate change isn’t going anywhere, unfortunately. But it is great to feel like the work you are doing is making an important contribution towards the solution. And it’s also a really interesting, exciting and diverse industry to work in.

 


 

Does working in renewables appeal to you? Search EDF Careers page for jobs at EDF Renewables. Or follow us on LinkedIn to get more of an insight into day-to-day working life in renewables. Or find out about our plans to build our renewables portfolio in Ireland.