Could offshore wind be our biggest economic opportunity?

28 Jan 2010

When most people in Ireland think about renewable energy, our imagination stops at wind farms on hills in Kerry or Galway, but the biggest economic opportunity, according to Matthew Knight, energy distribution expert at Siemens, is our coastline.

With 16pc of Europe’s coastline, entire offshore resources could be built out to sea and enough wind and wave energy could be harvested to power cities across the continent.

Norway, the one country in Europe that is riding out the recession quite comfortably because of its natural gas exports, is already on the case. It realises its gas supplies are finite and is planning to replace this by making use of its generous length of coastline to sell wave energy.

Scotland has also spotted the gap in the market – London’s overhead power lines can’t keep up with demand, so the canny Scots are harnessing wave power from the North Sea and are building an interconnect to funnel the energy to London.

To Knight’s mind, Ireland is closer geographically to London than Scotland and is mad to miss out on this opportunity.

Siemens and the Ardnacrusha Dam

In a way, it is fitting that a Siemens person is pointing out this obvious fact. Siemens played a key role in building the Ardnacrusha Dam in 1928 when a fledgling Free State used one-third of its available budget to harness the hydropower of the Shannon and electrify the nation.

Knight says Ireland has a fantastic and enviable renewable resource that could not only make us self-sufficient and create jobs, but could also bring the benefits of becoming a net exporter of power to Europe.

But key to maximising the benefits of renewables are interconnection and demand management; the latter includes energy storage and electric vehicles. The spin-off benefits include green jobs that will go where conditions are right first, not to the largest market.

He argues that Ireland could easily build 10 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050. This would require an estimated investment of €30 billion (including grid connections and an interconnector).

Knight sees a 2025 vision for an Irish Sea interconnection. He has also called for an expanded 2050 vision that includes the Atlantic, other marine renewable technologies and more interconnection as part of an EU-wide super grid linking to solar thermal plants in southern Spain.

In terms of the connections, he gives examples of the Arklow and Codling link to Wales as well as Ireland, and highlights the potential North-South offshore interconnector and the development of an alliance of interests with Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.

“Ireland has a key part to play. If you look at a map of north-west Europe showing who owns the ocean, Ireland owns at least as much or more than the UK or Norway. Ireland, the UK and Norway have the potential to be the biggest renewable energy suppliers to the rest of Europe.

“Norway is developing technology for deep-water marine renewable energy because they know gas will one day run out. Wind is an easily exploitable resource here in Ireland even more than around Norway. In Norway, they are looking at floating wind turbines to become Europe’s wind energy provider.

“Ireland needs to get its act together quite quickly to kick-start things if it’s going to maximise the opportunity for jobs.”

Green tech projects for Irish coastline

Knight says there are currently four projects proposed along the Irish coastline: the Oriel Windfarm and the Dublin Array, which have grid connection offers in place, as well as Codling Bank and Arklow’s wind farms.

“On the Irish side of the sea there are plenty of good ideas, but they are still waiting for grid connections. It is wrong to make them wait in queue for connections behind inland wind farmers. I think offshore and onshore are two distinct markets. Offshore is the big one. You will never build a 1,000-megawatt farm onshore, but you could definitely build it offshore. You could build these wind farms out to sea, just over the horizon, out of sight and out of mind, generating a large source of energy and a large supply of jobs.”

Returning to the Scots, he says they are planning to create a seven-gigawatt supply of offshore wind.

“The demand for that wind is in southern England, in the London area and across continental Europe. The overhead lines in southern England are overloaded. The Scots decided it would take forever to supply this from onshore and decided that putting wind power offshore and sending it down to the southern part of the UK would be a good idea. They were right. But if you look at Ireland, it is closer to London and has enormous natural wind resources.

“If it can find the political will, there is a tremendous opportunity for Ireland to be a major electricity provider into Europe. Other countries with less ocean are already ahead of you. Ireland owns 200 nautical miles out to sea, but Germany squeezed in between Denmark and the Netherlands owns a tiny patch and they are looking to build 10 gigawatts of power distribution. You could get that quite comfortably in the Irish Sea and the return on investment would be rapid,” Knight concludes.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Matthew Knight, energy distribution expert at Siemens, believes Ireland could become one of Europe’s largest energy providers

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years