Ireland’s Ardnacrusha hydro-electric power station – a clean-tech exemplar?

14 Aug 2012

Ireland's Ardnacrusha power station today

This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the opening of the hydro-electric power station Ardnacrusha, a civil engineering feat that took four years to complete before it opened in 1929. The new power station was regarded as a symbol of risk-taking in terms of the newly independent Irish Free State for harnessing natural resources, such as water, to generate part of Ireland’s future energy supply.

Work on Ardnacrusha, which formed part of the Shannon hydro-electric scheme, started in 1925. The German company Siemens was behind the build and around 1,000 German and 4,000 Irish workers were involved in the construction phase between 1925 and 1929. What was also significant is that Ardnacrusha cost more than IR£5m to construct – almost one-fifth of the entire annual budget that had been available to the-then government, led by WT Cosgrave (president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, 1922-1932). Thus Ardnacrusha became a symbol of forward thinking in relation to harnessing Ireland’s natural resources, as well as being indicative of the country’s future economic and industrial development.

As well as the station, canals were constructed along the River Shannon, spanned by four new bridges. Plus, a system of culverts and sluices were also constructed to increase the fall in water levels between Lough Derg and the Shannon.

The waters of the River Shannon were harnessed at the Ardnacrusha dam. Then, workers on the project built a network to electricity across the country from the new power station.

In tandem, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was also set up in 1927 as the first of Ireland’s semi-state bodies and it has managed Ardnacrusha since its opening in 1929.

Since then, Ardnacrusha has been regarded as a major civil engineering achievement, winning the ‘International Landmark’ prize in 2002 from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Other recipients of the prize in the past have included the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal. The power station has also won an ‘International Milestone’ award that was presented by the Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers.

As well as this, other projects around the world looked to Ardnacrusha when building their own power stations – it was a reference site for the Tennessee Valley project in the US.

Ardnacrusha first build

Ardnacrusha – first build

But can we look to Ardnacrusha as a symbol of forward thinking for the Ireland of today in terms of harnessing more of the country’s natural resources, such as wind, to create a cleaner energy supply?

Back in late July, the current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, TD, was at Ardnacrusha to mark the 85th anniversary of the setting up of ESB.

Another former taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, was also at Ardnacrusha on that day. It was significant as he was at the official opening of the station by his father WT Cosgrave on 29 July 1929 as a young boy.

Kenny spoke this July about how Ardnacrusha remains a “powerful symbol of bold thinking” as new reforms are introduced in the State-owned energy sector.

So where is Ardnacrusha at right now in terms of Ireland’s electricity supply? According to ESB, the station can provide a rapidly available source of electricity during hours of peak demand and can also act as a back up, such as when another plant breaks down.

Catherine Halpin is plant manager at Ardnacrusha, which now employs 53 people. She said that in the Nineties, a big overhaul was carried out at the station to maximise its output.

“This means the station now has the capacity to achieve up to 92 megawatts of electricity instead of the previous maximum 85/86 megawatt output at any point in tim,” she explained.

To put that in perspective, that’s enough electricity to power a town like Ennis in Co Clare each day, depending on the water. That’s our maximum output.”

According to Halpin, Ardnacrusha, when it provides intermittent electricity, powers 2pc of Ireland’s current maximum requirements. And when it first started running all those years ago the station provided 96pc of Ireland’s electricity requirements.

“We run depending on the lake levels in Lough Derg, as well as the predicted rainfall into the lake. We monitor the meteorological conditions daily.”

Ardnacrusha - second build

Ardnacrusha – second build

But what can Ireland take from Ardnacrusha now, especially as the Government looks to integrate more renewable into the electricity grid? In June, for instance, Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, met with the UK’s Energy Minister Charles Hendry, MP, in London, where the duo agreed to develop a formal memorandum of understanding (MoU) on renewable energy trading between the two countries.

Said Halpin: “The massive risk that was taken with Ardnacrusha is an example of breaking into new technologies and how you have to take a risk in order to break new ground.”

Right now, ESB has four main hydro stations in Ireland and Halpin argued that it is tapping into 70pc of the estimated available hydro resources in the country.

“Ardnacrusha has paid off and ESB would like to think of it as an example of how Ireland can harness its clean energy resources in the future, especially around wind, wave and tidal,” she said.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic