'Our £1bn network could accommodate hydrogen gas as the new source of energy for the future...'
The Big Interview: Kailash Chada
It was a nostalgic affair for Kailash Chada, chief financial officer at Phoenix Natural Gas, when he took his three sons (ages nine, 13 and 14) to the recent 148th Open in Portrush.
Over 40 years earlier, the home of that grand golf tournament was the backdrop to Kailash's and his three siblings' childhood.
It was also the home of his mother and late father's retail business - a shop that sold souvenirs, records and other memorabilia to tourists visiting the seaside resort.
"They were completely unexcited," says Kailash about the mood in the family camp ahead of that golfing trip.
"The weather might have been a bit hit-and-miss but in the end the boys really enjoyed it, but hated telling me that," he says.
Kailash lived in Magherafelt before moving to Portrush with his three sisters and parents when he was around three years old.
He reflects fondly on the coastal town, adding: "It was a fantastic place to grow up."
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And he's glad to see investment in the area that he believes is helping bring back its former reputation. Recently, development agency Tourism NI said the spend in Portrush and its surrounds to entice The Open was "commercially sensitive".
It wouldn't reveal the total amount spent. However, some governmental departments indicate a spend of tens of millions.
Whatever it is, it's paid off, Kailash believes.
"In the early 1990s, Portrush was getting forlorn and tired and everyone thought it was past its heyday. I brought my mother up a few months ago.
"Her and my father moved to Portadown 10 years ago and she was so delighted to see Portrush almost back to its former glory. There's been so much money invested in the town. It's good to see," he adds.
Kailash left Northern Ireland in 1989 for Edinburgh where he studied engineering. A post-graduate placement at PwC followed to kick-start his career.
"They didn't necessarily look for those studying accountancy when they recruited for those trainee schemes," says Kailash. "They also looked at people with engineering skills because they are good at problem-solving."
Kailash spent four years at PwC before taking a year out to travel.
Those travels took in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
"Back in 1998, Vietnam was relatively un-touristy," Kailash says of his favourite destination while on that year out. "It's just a really beautiful country, the people are fantastic and there is a lot to see and do."
PwC offered Kailash a role in London when he returned and while there he met his Bangor-born wife Joanne. It made the decision to return home in 2013 one that didn't take much discussion, he admits.
"I only went for a year to London to see if I would enjoy it. I was there for 15 years. I moved on from PwC to work for one of their clients, an inter-dealer broker, and spent several years there before moving into banking."
The last bank Kailash worked in before moving back to NI was Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) when they were creating a new division here at Ulster Bank.
He says: "It just seemed like a good opportunity to come home. My wife is from Bangor and I didn't need to convince her much to come back."
And in June 2017, following the restructure of Ulster Bank, Kailash decided to transfer his skills to the energy sector where he took up his current post with Phoenix Natural Gas.
The energy firm has been the leader in converting NI households and businesses to using natural gas energy since it set up here over 20 years ago.
Its expansion across NI has been ambitious, with one of its most recent investments bringing the benefits of gas into the more rural Down areas.
That £60m development will allow it to extend its natural gas network to a further 13 towns in the county including Anahilt, Ballygowan, Ballynahinch, Castlewellan, Crossgar, Downpatrick, Dromore, Drumaness, Dundrum, Hillsborough, Newcastle, Saintfield and Spa.
It's part of a wider investment of £1bn since the company came here, Kailash says, which keeps the chief financial officer at the firm here on his toes.
"The interesting thing is, when I moved into gas I didn't realise what a big industry it is. There are more than 3,000 people employed in natural gas in Northern Ireland, which is something given that 30 years ago there was no gas industry here.
"We've spent over £1bn over those years and our recent investment into east Down will connect another 22,000 people to gas over the next five years. It is an exciting project in terms of engineering and it's a really challenging project," says Kailash.
Hillier terrain, the crossing of major rivers and water pipelines, as well as traversing the M1 and A1 and the "rocky Mournes", all pose challenges for the firm.
The next step is promoting the benefits of gas to those living in the latter areas where it is soon to be available, and its greener credentials during a period of environmental awareness.
Gas is currently the lowest carbon dioxide-emitting fuel source that we use here, making natural gas the greener choice and giving Kailash and his team a big role in helping the Government reach its 2030 emissions targets, as well as setting the ball rolling for its 2050 Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions target.
"We've still got a lot of scope to move people to gas.
"It's a net positive when we move people to gas and that's something we are continuing to focus on," he adds.
"It feels like the focus on the environment, while it has always been there, has gained so much more momentum over the past 12 months and the world is asking what is the future."
Already, the existing uptake of gas energy here has saved one million tonnes of CO2 every year, says Kailash, and there is more being done to help boost that reading.
"That is medium-term - moving people to natural gas - but we are looking at ways of greening natural gas, reducing it further by injecting biomethane and in the longer term we are looking at the pipeline we have.
"That would be a great resource for options like hydrogen gas. That's the biggest innovation in zero emissions," he adds.
A number of trials ongoing throughout the UK are testing the use of hydrogen as a viable fuel source, and Kailash believes the network in place here for natural gas provides just the right infrastructure for moving hydrogen into homes in the future.
"There would be a very limited requirement for investment in the existing network and it wouldn't cause disruption. There are large schemes in Great Britain which are looking at trialling hydrogen and converting those into large-scale projects.
"It's a journey but it has to be done in a way that it's affordable and achievable as well as secure," he says.
Hydrogen energy has been dubbed as the main driver for de-carbonising the global economy, and millions of pounds in funding trial schemes in England will see around 750 homes heated using a blend of hydrogen and natural gas later this year.
The aim, following the trial, is to roll out the scheme which some sources say would have the same benefits as taking 22.5 million cars off the roads in the UK.
By 2022, 550,000 Northern Ireland properties will be able to connect to gas with 330,000 already connected, says Kailash.
To encourage the remainder properties to convert, a number of schemes are in play including Phoenix's Saver 65 Scheme and awareness projects.
"We've also got a new project building into Whitehead and we are hoping to fit into areas in Belfast where houses didn't previously exist and people are really excited about that, and we are, too."
Kailalsh says that had he not wandered down the financial career path, he might have very well ended up in the classroom.
"At some point in the future I would consider lecturing. I'm not sure if I would've done it straight after university but having worked in the industry I think it's a good way to learn - to learn from people who have done it."