LEAVING aside for a moment the rancour and acrimony which will forever be its legacy, the Corrib Gas Field represented an awesome feat of scientific engineering. How could our forebears ever had envisaged that, 50 miles off Erris Head, out in the wild, inhospitable ocean, a drilling rig would stretch deep into the waters, for a quarter of a mile, to reach the ocean floor. And that, having got there, it would burrow a further two miles down into the crust of the earth to where enormous reserves of natural gas had lain dormant for perhaps a million years.
Mayo seems to be a particular magnet for cutting edge, futuristic technology. Twenty five years ago, the country’s first commercial wind farm became operational in Bellacorick. Since then, almost 200 wind farms have opened across the country, generating a quarter of our electricity.
But the march of science and innovation is relentless, and now Mayo finds itself again poised to become centre stage in the next generation of wind energy technology.
It has long been acknowledged that surface wind is fickle and unreliable, and that wind turbines can be noisy and unsightly. At higher altitudes, however, wind is stronger and more stable, and nowhere more so than in north Mayo with its oceanic location and exposed coastline to uninterrupted wind forces. Researchers have been busy exploring how feasible it might be to exploit the open skies for wind energy, rather than depend on the vagaries of ground conditions.
The result has been the development of the first prototype airborne kites - or drones - which can hover some 500 metres above the ground and can convert atmospheric wind into electricity. The current prototypes being tested operate in two distinct ways. The first are kites flown high above the ground and which are continuously driven by the wind in figure-of-eight loops. The torque, or passive energy, produced by the constant, swirling movement is transmitted by way of anchor cables to drive generators based on the ground. The second system is to send up gliders mounted with propellors. As the glider loops around high in the sky, driven by the winds, the rotors begin to spin, generating the electricity which is passed to the ground through a tether. The glider can be returned to ground whenever necessary by simply winding in the tether.
If all of this sounds like the far fetched imaginings of some science-fiction zealot, be assured that it is not. And it is a lot closer that you might think. Early tests in Australia have proved positive, and plans are advanced for a new kite driven power station near Stranraer in Scotland.
Much nearer home, the research company E.On last week announced that it is to invest €3 million in a test site on the north Mayo coast to develop the commercial potential of the technology to produce electricity from autonomous flying drones.
The Mayo site was selected because of its geographic location, its low aerospace activity, and the fact that it is subject to strong steady winds. The technology, the company says, will transform the wind generation market because airborne wind devices are cheaper to manufacture and easier to maintain than conventional wind turbines.
And how did they happen on Mayo in the first place?
It began when the promoters attended a drone summit in Westport two years ago, went for a drive along the north Mayo coast on a blustery day, and realised that this was exactly what they had been looking for.