The Irish Wind Energy Sector: A Reason for Optimism?

wind energy


Ireland possesses one-third of the renewable energy resources in North West Europe, which includes wave energy potential and wind speeds that are among the highest in Europe. The main drivers of the Irish wind industry are its 2020 emissions and renewable energy targets, along with a major desire to reduce fuel imports and increase employment and industrial development

Ireland’s wind resources are substantial. For example, the Garrad Hassan/SEAI Report on the Industrial Development Potential of Offshore Wind in Ireland (2011) identified 14,313 Terawatt Hours (TWh) of annual offshore wind energy generation, before restrictions and limitations are accounted for. This falls to 14,171 TWh with selected spatial restrictions such as Department of Defence danger zones, shipping traffic zones and subsea cables and pipelines. A 70 percent reduction of development in areas around major shipping routes reduces this even further to 13, 675.

In 2011, wind energy reduced the Irish wholesale market cost of electricity by around 74 million euros and in 2012, the country generated 15 percent of its electricity from wind, adding 125 MW to its existing capacity. By 2015, Ireland was able to meet one-quarter of its electricity demand from wind with one-fifth of demand being met by wind in June 2015 alone.

Ireland’s first offshore wind farm was the Arklow Bank Wind Farm, some 10 kilometres off the east coast of Ireland in the Irish Sea. This is owned and was constructed by GE and co-developed by Airtricity and GE Energy. It incorporates 7 GE 3.6 MW turbines generating a total of 25 MW. The available wind resources for offshore wind farms in Irish waters are greater off the western coast, however the east coast is favoured because of the shallower depths in the Irish Sea.

Onshore wind farms in Ireland include the four largest sites at Knockacummer (87.5 MW), Mount Lucas (84 MW), Meentycat (72 MW), Derrybrien (60 MW).

One of the reasons for the continued success of the Irish wind industry is that Ireland enjoys a higher level of support for wind among its citizens than does the UK. An Ipsos/Mori poll conducted in 2013 found that 80 percent of Irish citizens are in favour of wind power, whereas in the UK it usually hovers around the 60 percent mark.

According to Joseph Curtin, senior fellow for climate and energy policy at the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin, Irish electricity prices are currently among the highest in the EU. One of the reason for this is the country’s lower population density, requiring about 70 percent more cabling per person than the EU average. This generates higher electricity prices along with the cost of importing gas. It’s been known for several years that the major driver of high electricity bills, not just in Ireland but also across the world, is the high cost of global gas. An analysis of gas prices between 2007 and 2013 by the International Gas Union has found that prices doubled throughout that period right across the EU.

Gas prices fell in 2014, declining by 27 percent in Ireland and prompting a 14 percent decline in electricity prices. However, more than half of Ireland’s current electricity consumption is driven by gas and that means Ireland is more vulnerable than other countries in the EU to future price increases. The problem is exacerbated that Ireland has to import its gas supplies from the UK via interconnectors, which creates an additional cost.

These factors explain why support for wind in Ireland is higher than in the UK. They are also highly significant when it comes to the attractiveness of Ireland for new business interested in developing renewable energy infrastructure. For example, Apple recently announced a decision to locate one of its data centres in County Galway, an 850 million euro facility to be built in Athenry. The current thinking is that more data centres locating in Ireland could achieve a spectacular turnaround in the country’s energy economy.

A report by international consulting and engineering consultancy Pöyry found that 900MW of new demand from data centres, spread over three years, would result in a 20 percent increase in annual electricity consumption in Ireland between 2013 and 2020. This in turn would lower the wholesale price of electricity so that it more than offsets the cost of integrating wind power into the Irish grid network. It would also generate a total saving of at least 43 million euros per year for electricity consumers, benefitting each household by at least 26 euros per year in 2020. It would also reduce Irish carbon emissions by 2.6 million tonnes per year, reducing electricity sector emissions by 20 percent and bringing the sector’s annual emissions 18 percent below 2013 levels in 2020. In effect this would make the Irish electricity system low carbon.

“The requirement for large scale data storage is growing year on year and data centres will be at the core of the 21st century economy” said Kenneth Matthews, CEO of the IWEA. “Given their considerable electricity consumption, Internet giants, such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Intel, are increasingly looking to power their data centres using clean and renewable power sources, which constitutes a massive opportunity for Ireland, which has clean wind energy in abundance.”

Mr Matthews added that the report provides confirmation that wind energy is quickly becoming an important factor in attracting new high tech foreign direct investment into Ireland, demonstrating that the country’s wind energy sector can play a key role in delivering a low carbon electricity system to help power the internet while also securing investment and jobs and reducing electricity prices for Irish business and domestic users.

Nevertheless, as in other countries, particularly the UK and the US, there is some determined opposition to further deployment of wind turbines. Just recently, energy specialist and director of BW Energy Dr Anthony White said that meeting the 40 percent renewables target would mean deploying another 200 wind farms in Ireland.

“Attainment of the 40 per cent target will require another 200 wind farms, 700km of new transmission line and hundreds of new towers to carry these lines” Dr White told The Irish Times. “These transmission reinforcements alone will cost up to 3.9 billion euros, according to EirGrid.”

Dr White added that the same targets could be reached for one-tenth of the cost by deploying biomass instead, for example by converting the Moneypoint power station in County Clare.

BW Energy describes itself as a specialist in decarbonising energy markets and so is not hostile to renewable energy, but Dr White himself pursued this argument by resorting to the same kind of visual impact arguments so often seen across the UK.

“We wouldn’t need to pepper the countryside with industrial-scale wind turbines and transmission towers” he said. “Some of these turbines are 169 metres in height – almost three times taller than the Liberty Hall building in Dublin, or one-sixth the height of Ireland’s tallest mountain, Carrauntoohil.”

However, Dr Eddie O’Connor, the former chief executive of Bord na Móna and former founding chief executive of Airtricity, said that the real obstacle to making Irish energy sustainable was ‘mental attitude’ given that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Dr O’Connor cited the example of solar which has fallen in price by 80 percent over the past seven years, alongside wind which has fallen by 55 percent.

Another huge wind farm is currently on course to being developed in Ireland, this time by SSE Airtricity which is collaborating with the forestry company Coillte. The plant will be constructed close to Moycullen, about 22 kilometres outside Galway. The wind farm will deliver enough electricity to supply 84,000 homes according to the two partners.

The fact that the plant will be built in a spectacularly beautiful part of the country is again a major factor in the generation of opposition, but this is why it is so important for wind energy developers to engage with the local community.

“This is not about arriving when the turbines are going up” SSE Airtricity managing director Stephen Wheeler told The Irish Times. “It really means going and talking to locals, being clear about our plans, being clear about what we are developing. It’s not about having the soft conversations, it’s about the honest conversations, this is what we’re developing, this is how we’ve chosen to develop this.”

Mr Wheeler added that the company will be there for the long term, 25-40 years where it is part of the community. This is why the company has assured local people that a large number of the long-term jobs will go to local people. A local community fund, generated from a proportion of the revenue from wind farms, will go towards spending in the locality, including retrofitting homes, installing insulation and assisting people with cutting energy consumption and household energy bills. Bursaries to help local children go to college is another part of the assistance provided by the company.

As with many other countries, one of the biggest challenges is to reduce costs. According to Wheeler, subsidies in Ireland are not out of line with other subsidies across the EU but inevitably as the technology grows and matures, the subsidies needed to support it will become less important.

Ireland still has a long way to go before it can truly move to a low-carbon electricity system, but given recent developments across the Irish Sea, at the moment, at least, it seems to be doing a whole lot better in terms of political and public support than in the UK. And that is encouraging.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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