FOUR hundred years ago the sublimely mad Don Quixote strapped on his shining suit of armour, mounted his trusted steed and set off with his servant Sancho Panza to rid the world of evil.
It wasn't long before he happened upon a pod of windmills, their giant arms spinning languidly on a sun-drenched plain. Seeing them as monsters, the great Don slammed down his metal mask, lowered his lance and prepared to charge.
It wasn't until Sancho pointed out that the windmills weren't evil invaders but devices which create energy to drive giant wheels which grind the people's corn and allow them to make the bread that Don Quixote called off his attack.
Today windmills don't grind corn.
But the magnificently beautiful wind turbines which dot our mountains and coasts are playing just as vital a role in the life of the nation as the windmills which Don Quixote so graciously spared.
It's just 20 years since Ireland began developing wind energy. But in the short space of just two decades giant strides have been made.
The first commercial scale wind turbines in Ireland were installed in 1993 and since then the generation of wind energy has become central to Ireland's overall energy policy. This week, members of the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) will gather in Dublin for their annual conference and the statistics accompanying them are indeed impressive. Over the past 20 years:
• More than 2,200 jobs have been created in developing wind power.
• The wind sector has contributed a total €83m to councils, money which has been ploughed into the development of regional economies. Last year alone, up to €11.5m was delivered to local county councils through rates.
• A total of €2.8bn has been invested in wind farms, a staggering sum by any standards. In 2011 alone the investment figure was €372m. A further €4bn is expected over the next eight years to meet domestic targets alone.
• Wind is now no longer a niche product across Europe where wind capacity 23 times the national demand of Ireland has been installed. Last year wind energy accounted for more than 15pc of our electricity demand. Wind energy also has the capability to supply 1.3 million homes in Ireland.
These statistics show how far Europe and Ireland has come in a relatively short time and how real, tangible benefits are already being realised in every region of the country. And it is this solid base on which the wind energy industry in Ireland is building its future. Ireland has a strong competitive advantage in the wind energy sector and it must be used to stimulate our economy.
However, the Irish challenge is to secure energy supply while ensuring that the global challenge of climate change is met and electricity prices stay competitive.
If this challenge is met, economic development and growth will follow.
The industry creates employment and drives growth in other economic sectors across Europe. Ireland can be at the heart of this. In fact, Ireland has ambitious targets, but so do the rest of Europe and we happen to be in the windiest corner of Europe.
For Ireland, there are now two major opportunities – meeting our domestic targets and opening up trading with neighbouring states, which would be a transformational change for wind energy in Ireland.
Recognising the critical importance of the issue, the IWEA has themed this year's annual conference 'Irish Wind Power Our Competitive Advantage'. The conference opens in Dublin today.
A major milestone was reached earlier this year when Ireland and the UK signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on energy trading. Ireland has the resources to produce an abundant surplus of wind energy, while the UK is expected to have a severe shortage in the coming years. Under the agreement, Ireland could export wind energy to the UK – a development which will allow us to create long-term sustainable jobs in a growth industry and boost the national and local economy.
The MoU is an essential stepping stone on the road to unlocking Ireland's energy exporting potential.
Kenneth Matthews is chief executive of IWEA. Its annual conference takes place today and tomorrow in the Four Seasons Hotel, Dublin.