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Time is right to harness winds of change in Clare and elsewhere

Champion Chatter

With Ireland working to reduce its carbon emissions and gain energy security, wind power is the obvious choice, so Bridget Ginnity looks at where we stand in harnessing this renewable resource

WIND power has had a big impact on Ireland. Around the 9th century the Vikings harnessed the power of the wind to sail thousands of miles and landed on our shores, the first long distance travel in our hemisphere.

And, 1,200 years later, the Danes are still harnessing the power of the wind. They currently have over twice Ireland’s wind generating capacity and a major offshore development with enough generating power for twice their population is well advanced.

Ireland’s wind capacity

Although not as successful as our distant relatives, Ireland has made substantial progress in wind generation.

An average of 40% of our power now comes from wind, a significant achievement. The target is 80% renewable electricity by 2030, a challenging target but achievable if we proceed quickly.

Wind generation has a huge impact on the nation’s carbon emissions. The current wind capacity means Ireland emits about 4 million tonnes less of carbon than if we had stayed with fossil fuels.

That’s equivalent to taking all the private cars off the road. Think of it, 300 wind farms balance the carbon emissions from over two million cars.

When the price is right

With the current gas supply crisis and improved technology, electricity from wind can be produced at a quarter of the price of electricity generated from gas.

At the moment we aren’t getting the price advantage from wind energy we might expect due to a fundamental flaw in the design of the electricity market at EU and national level.

We have the crazy contractual situation that we are paying around 40 cents per unit of wind power even though it is generated at a cost of less than 10 cents per unit.

When this market flaw is rectified, we will feel the benefits of wind energy in lower electricity bills.

If Ireland expands our wind capacity and displaces oil, gas and coal, we will also enhance our energy security, reduce pollutant emissions and go a long way to solving our greenhouse gas emissions problems.

Clare’s contribution

Clare and other counties on the western seaboard are the obvious location for onshore wind farms because of our strong, steady wind. Whoever thought it could be such a valuable resource?

The current draft County Development Plan has a target of 550MW additional onshore wind energy capacity for the period 2023-2029. To reach that target we would need three to four times the existing number of wind turbines in County Clare.

We can judge how challenging that target is by looking back at the last County Development Plan from 2017-2023. The target then was 500MW and 153 MW has been installed.

From a search of the Clare County Council planning website, it seems that eight out of 11 new wind farm applications were refused from 2011 to the present, so we don’t have many wind farm projects in the pipeline.

A significant constraint on coherent planning is that the current guidelines for wind energy are outdated, from 2006.

The Clare Wind Energy Strategy, which is no longer fit for purpose, will not be updated until the long awaited government Wind Energy Guidelines are finalised. An unfortunate consequence is that planning applications have become more and more contentious.

More of that later, as you will see with efforts to move into offshore wind generation.

On the one hand…

Locals and communities living in the vicinity of proposed windfarms have objected to developments on various grounds.

Generally the concerns centre around aspects like noise, flicker and visual intrusion. Ecological concerns include protecting hen harriers and other birds and land slippage, such as occurred in Derrybrien. For locations where there are already wind turbines, there is a sense the area has done its bit and is saturated.

Wind-rich Clare currently has only 3.5% of the national wind generating capacity, so is it right to sit back and say we have done enough for country and climate?

The conflicted reaction of many locals is well described in the recent book “In Kiltumper” co-written by Niall Williams and Christine Breen.

Woven through the book is the dreaded anticipation of three turbines going up nearby, about 500m from their wonderful garden near Kilmihil. They love the natural world and are aware of the urgency of the need to stop climate change yet the visual and noise impact of the turbines and the desecration of their narrow county road just doesn’t seem right to them.

And on the other hand…

In the same book, Niall quotes a neighbour who says about turbines “They are saving us for the future, they’re getting us off the oil”.

Getting us off the oil and other fossil fuels for electricity generation will further reduce our national carbon emissions by about over four million tonnes per year if we achieve the target of 80% renewables by 2030. That’s a lot of carbon, but we’re such a small country, will that make an impact on the global temperature rise?

It’s not possible to say what difference it will make but experience is showing that climate change is happening faster than expected and that we need to do everything possible to minimise the damage.

As UN leader Antontio Guterres said, it is “code red for humanity”.

Getting the balance right

Pat Dowling, chief executive of Clare County Council, states, “The capacity to harness Clare’s resources and generate energy will need to be balanced along with other considerations including community acceptance of energy infrastructure, the ecological and environmental impact of energy generators, energy infrastructure capacity and development, landscape characteristics, and land use changes.”

Achieving that balance is difficult, and made more so by the different weight different people assign to the various considerations.

And as humans, we are biased towards putting more weight to the immediate, visible impacts than to the longer term, less tangible ones.
One way to help us consider the longer term impact is to imagine the lives of young children in Clare. In the near future, some will live with a view of wind turbines, and aspects like noise and flicker might disturb them.

As they grow up and become parents themselves, they will all live in the chaos of climate change. That is already certain. We still have time to reduce the extent of the chaos but the window is closing. As everyone from Bill Gates to Greta Thunberg has said, “The time for action is now.”

Land or sea

But what about siting the wind turbines offshore? Wouldn’t that give us the benefit of wind energy without the disadvantage of them on our doorstep?
This is a widely held view by those who object to onshore wind farms as many are also very concerned about the climate crisis.

Offshore wind is a major element in the national renewables plan with a current target of 7000 MW installed capacity. Ireland was originally quite advanced in offshore wind generation.

Back in 2004, we built seven turbines in a world leading project, the Arklow Banks Wind Farm. They are still our only offshore turbines and we are definitely the tortoise in the race now.

By comparison, the UK has been powering ahead. Although they have less wind renewables overall than us, at 24% compared with our 40%, over half of their capacity is from offshore wind farms.

Existing offshore windfarms are mainly in shallow depths where they can be fixed to the sea-bed. The deep waters off the west coast of Clare mean wind farms need to be on floating platforms, a bit like oil rigs.

The goal is floating wind turbines that can operate far out to sea but they are not likely to be a reality until the 2030s or ‘40s. When these are developed, we can begin to dismantle onshore capacity as it reaches the end of its operating lifetime and regain our landscape.

Potential off-shore projects in Clare have suffered setback recently with the withdrawal of major backers.

Equinor had been working with the ESB since 2019 to identify and build a portfolio of offshore projects around the east, south and west coasts.

This included plans for a floating windfarm with generating capacity of up to 1.5GW at Moneypoint off the coasts of counties Clare and Kerry.

Shell has also recently pulled out of a partnership with Simply Blue to develop an offshore wind farm off Clare.

On both occasions regulatory issues were cited. Legislation to modernise and reform the system for developing offshore wind generation capacity is currently before the Oireachtas.

The Shannon Estuary

The Shannon estuary has been identified as having great potential for a floating wind farm with the advantage of being close to land and the transmission grid.

The ESB is evaluating the feasibility of the Moneypoint Offshore Wind Farm project at the moment.

But many of the issues like visual impact currently associated with onshore wind farms will also apply to the estuary. And there’s the added problems related to marine life – the dolphins won’t like the construction noise. So these issues will still need to be addressed.

The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications recognise that offshore wind is a longer term solution and pointed out, “It is important that the capacity to deliver onshore wind isn’t reduced further during the finalisation of the [Clare County Development] Plan”.

Mr Dowling acknowledged that “the deployment of onshore renewable energy technologies represents a quicker method of achieving our national renewable energy targets in the short-to-medium term”.

He added that “the focus during this plan period will be to support the development of the on-shore service infrastructure in preparation for when the time comes for the delivery of off-shore installations”.

Obviously wind isn’t the only source of renewable energy. The sun does shine, even in Clare, but a solar PV farm is only about a third as productive as wind for a given installed capacity. And the potential from biomass is much less again.

Moving from Nimby to Pimby

Niall Williams said “Chris and I are not Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ers (Nimby), we don’t want [wind turbines] in your back yard either.”.

Yet there have been examples all around the world where constructive engagement between the various parties has resulted in resolution of issues and even a change from Nimby to Pimby, “Please in my back yard”.

It seems reasonable that residents and communities that live in the immediate vicinity of wind farms have their concerns about disruption and location listened to and mitigated, and that they be compensated for any residual adverse impact.

It’s important also to acknowledge the contribution they are giving to the rest of us in terms of carbon emission reductions.

This last year has brought the tragedy of the war in Ukraine and the consequent increase in energy costs. Every week we witness climate devastation in so many countries. Each scientific report brings home the message that time is not on our side.

So, an important question is, “Will we be green by 2030?” Definitely, yes. But will we be green with 80% renewable energy? Or will we be green with envy at countries like Denmark with low cost, renewable, non-polluting wind energy?

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS
The wind is not blowing all the time so turbines aren’t always spinning. A wind turbine that can generate 1MW energy at maximum speed gives around 0.3MW annual average.

In the lulls in wind other sources of electricity are called upon. At present this is mainly from gas fuelled power stations, and imports through the interconnector from the UK.
Eirgrid do an incredible job in this delicate real-time balancing of power supply.

While writing this article on a windy day, the instantaneous wind energy was 78% of total national power generation.

To manage this balancing act the gas power plants are signalled to reduce their output, and when the wind dies down again they will ramp up their output until supply matches the demand.

It’s an updated version of the early days of Ardnacrusha, when the operator would open and close water flow to turbines to meet demand for a cup of tea during half time in a GAA match.

In the future, short-term troughs in the wind energy and spikes in energy demand will increasingly be filled by battery power supplies and demand management, such as large energy users adjusting their consumption.

Longer spells of calm weather will be covered by importation of electricity from France and UK.

When the wind is blowing there will be excess electricity which will be sold over the interconnectors, and also converted to hydrogen which can replace imported natural gas for heating and power generation.

We welcome your comments on wind energy, contact [email protected]

About Bridget Ginnity

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