Offshore wind energy: The economic opportunity of our generation


17 Mar 2022

Image: © Fokke/Stock.adobe.com

Cork Chamber CEO Conor Healy makes a plea for ambition, leadership and a clear strategy for offshore wind energy in Ireland.

In the past weeks, the case for bringing autonomy to Irish energy production has been brought sharply to the fore as one of the knock-on impacts of the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine.

Ireland – and Europe, more broadly – is overly reliant on imported fossil fuel. This not only hinders taking the right steps in global politics but is also terminally damaging our environment.

Future Human

We can no longer afford to be reliant on aggressive dictatorships or on a form of energy generation that compounds the likelihood of climate disaster.

In this context, and having just approved the progression of a number of gas-fired power generators for base load stability, it is critical that the next steps taken by the Irish Government to enable Ireland’s energy independence, through the wide-scale deployment of renewables and storage technology, must be swift and sure footed.

Ambition and leadership

It is the view of Cork Chamber that 5,000MW of offshore wind energy by 2030 should be seen as a minimum threshold target and that the overall target must be much more ambitious. The Celtic Sea alone has potential for 50GW of offshore wind.

For context, the UK is set for 40GW by 2030, Germany for 40GW by 2040 and France for 40GW by 2050.

Ireland became the second country in the world to formally declare a climate emergency in 2019. We now have a legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050 and a reduction of 51pc by 2030, as well as a target to increase the proportion of renewable electricity to up to 80pc by 2030. If action to meet these targets does not follow that declaration of an emergency, the damage will not only be environmental but reputational.

The required urgency must be reflected in the funding and resourcing of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA) and in a strong and bold iteration of the forthcoming Offshore Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (ORESS).

MARA will play a leading role in facilitating and regulating development in the maritime area from early 2023 and is wholly welcome. Responsibilities will include the processing of Maritime Area Consents, granting licences for activities such as environmental surveys, ensuring robust compliance and enforcement measures, as well as managing the existing State foreshore portfolio of leases. It will be an immensely significant institution.

From day one, MARA will need capability and capacity to ensure it rapidly facilitates applications to develop renewable assets.

As the whole of the renewable sector scales up, resources will likely be a recurring theme for relevant Government departments, An Bord Pleanála, local authorities, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, EirGrid, ESB Networks and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

In a climate and energy security crisis it is essential that there is no weak link that inhibits the pace of development. We cannot afford for projects to get caught up in an under-resourced system.

Investor confidence

Investor confidence is critical to the success of the Irish market, and the capital investment, green energy and jobs associated with the offshore wind sector must be supported.

Regulatory conditions should support and empower renewable energy projects. It is a form of foreign direct investment that helps us meet our climate change targets and the Equinor exit cannot be repeated.

The offshore wind industry must be enabled to deliver a stable and steady supply of green energy which is critical infrastructure to meet the energy demands of manufacturing and foreign direct investment. ORESS must be bold and ambitious, pushing the envelope beyond merely complying with climate commitments to a bigger vision of global leadership and energy independence.

The timely processing of applications for relevant project status will go a long way to instil investor confidence. However, without scale of ambition, future investment will not be sustained, and may in fact go elsewhere.

Readiness of the supply chain

A progressive regime for renewables presents an unparalleled opportunity for Cork and Ireland to foster ethical energy solutions for a resilient economy and address the climate crisis. There are opportunities for business and employment in supply chain, turbine installation, construction, technical innovation and operations and maintenance.

Cork and Ireland must be ready to compete as a destination of choice for investment where competing projects in the UK, US and Asia are already well underway.

There are currently only three suppliers of offshore wind turbines worldwide and overall, the top three manufacturers represented over 90pc share of deployed turbines. Ireland must do better at supply chain capture and R&D allocation and a detailed strategy must be set out on this front.

Only a few European seaports are currently suitable for floating wind manufacture, assembly and servicing projects in Irish waters. Yet the UK government is actively investing to ensure its ports in the Irish Sea and Celtic Sea ports are placed to compete directly with Irish counterparts with cap-ex programmes and freeport status in the mix.

The readiness of Irish ports for equipment delivery and assembly on and offshore must be further enabled, supported and locked into future support schemes. Cork and Ireland can be a de facto floating offshore wind and hydrogen hub for the Irish and Celtic Sea. But without clear strategy and focus the opportunity could easily be missed. Alongside a hydrogen strategy, a ports and infrastructure strategy must be actively pursued.

From ambition to reality

It would appear that the topic of energy is here to stay in a major way. It has implications of the highest order for business, society, the environment, democracy and Europe.

The widespread roll-out of renewables is not only reputationally critical but an ethical imperative. Clean, cost-effective energy for communities, and businesses must move from ambition to reality.

The private sector is ready to work with Government to make this happen.

By Conor Healy

Conor Healy is the CEO of Cork Chamber, which represents almost 1,200 businesses.

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