Optimistic engineer who never stops looking at the big picture
Embracing a new energy policy is next big challenge
Published 12/08/2010 | 05:00
WERNER Kr- uckow doesn't think much of the €5bn underground system which will one day link Dublin Airport with the capital. It's just not ambitious enough for this creative and free-thinking engineer who runs Siemens' Irish operations and who once led the company's mass transportation operations across the globe.
The future metro system will only be able to carry 20,000 passengers each way every hour, he warns. The European average for a city the size of Dublin is 36,000.
"We have to ask what kind of capacity we need. We should build the system so it is future-proof," says the 54-year-old German, who spent five years criss-crossing the globe installing trams, light rail and underground systems. "We need to think big and act fast."
In another chief executive, these comments might sound like sour grapes; Spanish companies will build the metro after Siemens failed to win the tender.
But Kruckow is so sincere and so clearly fascinated by the big picture that what he says leaves this interviewer with the uneasy feeling that the metro is set to become another infrastructure project like the M50 or the Dart which will have to be expanded and upgraded within years of completion.
The problem is that underground systems can't be expanded. "It's a once-in-a-century project. We've got to get it right the first time," is how Kruckow puts it.
Sitting in a comfortable corner office off Dublin's Leeson Street with self-painted water colours of Irish scenes hanging on the wall, a golf putter in the corner and books about Tiger Woods on his shelves, Kruckow gives the impression of a man who is comfortable with his job and with his life in Ireland.
But his outlook remains robustly global while his deep background in engineering means that he knows exactly what can be done with existing technologies.
Kruckow runs a company with more than 1,000 employees in Dublin, Swords and Cork but has no financial qualifications, something that is rare in the English-speaking world outside the computer industry.
Instead, he has a doctorate in engineering from Darmstadt University where he also taught for five years. He remembers the move to Siemens and into the private sector as a "real shock to be honest" but he thrived once he discovered a love for sales alongside research and development.
It is hard to grasp just how big Siemens is: the company employs around 500,000 people, equivalent to more than a quarter of the Irish workforce, and makes everything from the 6km of conveyor belts which will transport luggage in Dublin Airport's Terminal 2 to the brewing and bottling equipment used by Guinness to make porter in St James's Gate.
Most of the company's profits come from three areas: medical equipment, transportation and energy.
While the company is huge, it regards itself as "multi-local" rather than a "multi-national" and the claim is not without merit considering Siemens has been selling in Ireland since 1875 and built the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric plant to harness the Shannon River in 1929 for a sum which then amounted to a fifth of the country's gross domestic product.
While Irish spending on medical equipment and transport is likely to be subdued over the next few years, Kruckow sees enormous opportunities for Ireland when it comes to alternative energy.
For those used to thinking of Ireland as a country without energy reserves, it is almost confusing, and at other times inspiring, to hear Kruckow's hopes for the future of Irish energy.
While many of us associate Irish beaches with holidays spent shivering in the rain, Kruckow sees only the potential of Irish waves which are the biggest in Europe and our winds which are the strongest.
He believes those gusts and waves can easily generate vast amounts of electricity that can in turn be exported to Europe and the rest of the world through a series of undersea interconnectors.
"On the ocean side, I see the real potential; we are unique -- only Scotland comes close," he says.
In Kruckow's worldview, Ireland is also very well suited to electric cars which have been manufactured by Siemens since 1905. The island is small enough that drivers almost never have to drive for more than 250km, he notes.
This means that every conceivable journey will soon be within range of electric cars as battery life extends; a situation that will never be the case in other European countries such as France or Spain where 2,000km journeys are common.
Kruckow denies such dreams are visionary or just plain impossible.
"We already have all this technology. It exists. It is just a question of deploying it," says the engineer, with just a hint of frustration.
While energy prices fluctuate, he believes they can only move upwards in the long term, which will have a disproportionate effect on Ireland where most electricity is generated from fossil fuels such as oil and gas. That is a message he is pushing across the country at the moment.
"Ireland's 80pc dependency on imported oil and gas puts the economy at considerable risk" and a major spike in energy costs could knock back gross domestic product by as much as 7pc, Kruckow told a meeting of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce recently.
Bombarded with bad news and projections of economic decline on an almost daily basis, it is intriguing to think on a longer and grander timescale; something our grandparents managed in the equally straitened times of the 1920s.
Back then, Kruckow's predecessor, Thomas McLoughlin, persuaded the State's first government to go ahead with the Shannon scheme. At the time it was one of the world's largest engineering projects and subsequently served as a model for large-scale electrification projects worldwide.
Today, another doctor of engineering faces much the same task -- again urging the Government to harness the power of water.
Whether he will succeed depends on many things: his own persuasiveness and the calibre of the politicians he seeks to persuade. It must seem an uphill task at times to get our decision makers to dream of things that never were, but this optimistic and knowledgeable German looks like the right man for the job.