In 1993, when he was twenty-four years old, Sean Whittaker moved to Madagascar in search of the perfect gust of wind.
A recent engineering graduate, Whittaker had just won a governmental grant to send young Canadian citizens overseas on development assignments. Aware of Madagascar’s searing poverty, and the East African island’s potential for wind development, Whittaker wanted to build windmills to aid irrigation.
“I found wind to be utterly fascinating,” said Whittaker, “and Madagascar had incredible wind capacity. Getting energy from a natural resource made a lot of sense to me.”
But with no manufacturing capacity on the island, and limited means to import steel or other metals, Whittaker was forced to think on his feet. That meant scouring the capital Antananarivo’s junk yards for spare parts that could be transformed into windmill components.
“I would walk around Antananarivo with my colleague, Justin Rasoanaivo, who could spot a transaxle from a Mercedes truck in a junk yard at a great distance,” remembers Whittaker with a smile. “We would drive around on our motorcycle with car parts hanging off the bike.”
“I had to draw on the resources around me and to work with local technicians who were incredibly creative. Their ability to come up with solutions using limited resources was astounding to watch.”
Now, nearly three decades later, Whittaker is drawing on that sense of creativity and entrepreneurship to push IFC into new upstream markets for offshore wind capacity.
A Principal Industry Specialist with IFC’s Climate Business Department who also works closely with the Global Power Group, Whittaker has joined forces with World Bank colleagues to assist emerging market governments assess their offshore wind potential and to develop a pipeline of bankable projects.
Whittaker’s shared vision is generated by recent advancements in floating wind technology that are opening new frontiers and making offshore wind a viable option for emerging markets with deeper water and unpredictable weather cycles.
“Offshore wind farms can generate power at a scale similar to that of a nuclear power plant. The cost of the electricity is competitive and coming down all the time,” said Whittaker. “In emerging markets like Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka, you have fantastic offshore wind resources that are right next to demand centers. You’ve got affordable, scalable power right where you need it.”
Whittaker is betting on an emerging trend that positions offshore wind as an attractive investment opportunity for fossil fuel companies. After years of anticipation, offshore wind is now seen as a commercially viable option for Big Oil and Gas — who already have the technical know-how — and who need to transform their business models from fossil fuel based to renewable.
In 2019, Whittaker, alongside World Bank Senior Energy Specialist Oliver Knight, brought high-level delegates from twelve emerging market governments to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a northeastern port city in the United Kingdom. The visit was part of a UK-funded program by the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) and IFC to accelerate the uptake of offshore wind in emerging markets.
In Newcastle, now a leading international hub for offshore wind, the delegates met with wind experts to best understand how to exploit the opportunities in the offshore energy market.
“Newcastle was once the home of coal in the United Kingdom,” said Whittaker. “Now there are fifteen thousand people working there in offshore wind. The delegates who came to Newcastle saw that this could be their future.”
“It was key to allow them to understand the opportunity and that their economies can benefit from this, sooner rather than later,” he said.
Whittaker has seen first-hand the impact that wind can bring to a local economy, no matter its size. Back in Madagascar as a young engineer, Whittaker worked with technicians in a machine shop to transform his junkyard treasures and artisanal metal castings into water-pumping windmills.
Whittaker would then strap the disassembled windmill to a truck and drive for two days to install the turbines in villages near the southern-most tip of the island. Subsequent visits required a 48-hour bush taxi ride from Antananarivo to the town of Tsihombe where he would then hitch an ox-cart ride for another eight hours to Ambohitse, a village community, part of the Antandroy tribe.
“I would live with the Antandroy in Ambohitse for six weeks at a time in a mud hut in a family compound,” said Whittaker. “I would go into the bush with a windmill, a 50-kilo bag of rice, some beans, and a bunch of live chickens.”
“This was the poorest area of Madagascar and trying to achieve the simplest of tasks was immensely challenging. The experience taught me a great deal of humility,” he said.
On a bluff perfectly positioned to harness the gusts blowing in from the Indian Ocean, Whittaker assembled his customized wind mills that pumped water directly to local plots of farmland. By 1998, five years after he had first arrived, the farmland surrounding the Antandroy villages sprouted an abundance of color and crops — greens, yams, and cassava.
With no means to communicate with his hosts, Whittaker learned the local language of the Antandroy, preserving the language in a dictionary he created and later acting as a translator between the Antandroy and visitors from the capital, Antananarivo, who spoke a different dialect of Malagasy.
In his time with the Antandroy, Whittaker participated from time to time in the tribe’s unique burial and healing ceremonies. Transported by the music he once heard at a bilo or healing ceremony, Whittaker, a music lover, produced an NPR featured album, Introducing Vakoka, featuring Madagascar’s top musicians that celebrated the island’s diverse musical landscape.
Those transformative five years in Madagascar now inform Whittaker’s work at IFC in helping the institution break new ground for offshore wind in emerging markets.
“At that time in Madagascar, I knew where I was supposed to be,” said Whittaker. “I’ve always had a strong feeling for when I am in the right place.
“I have the same feeling for offshore wind in emerging markets. It’s not a case of if, it’s when”.
Originally published in IFC Medium, written by Caitríona Palmer, Senior Consultant, Climate Business Department at IFC
IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.
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