Is the answer blowing in the wind?

County View

County View
John Healy

It’s two years since Micheál Martin told the great and the good at Davos that wind is Ireland’s oil, and that by the mid 2030s, we would be an exporter of energy. All of that sounded encouraging, except that at the same time, Boris Johnson was announcing that the UK would soon become ‘the Saudi Arabia of wind’.
If wind power is to be the answer to the world’s renewable energy problems, then Ireland should indeed be well positioned in terms of natural, climatic advantage. Our national target, under the Climate Action Plan, is to push up our usage of renewable energy to 80 percent of national requirement by 2030. And the signs are good; the month of October just gone yielded a usage of 40 percent, thanks to unusually high storm conditions.
The science of wind energy is moving away from land based turbines to offshore installations, a development which in theory should be very much to the advantage of this country. It would seem as if opportunity is knocking on our door; the potential for a huge new industrial revolution is waiting to be exploited. The west coast, surely, lends itself to being the world capital of wind energy.
But there is a long way to go before that happy milestone can be reached. To date, we have been singularly tardy in planning for what the new opportunities offer, and have been lacking in the nuts and bolts application of what will be required.
While the UK is already well out of the blocks on preparing the ground for the wind energy revolution, there is little sign of urgency or imagination in the Irish approach to wind development. Regulatory logjams, infrastructural deficiencies, an absence of coherent, joined up thinking, are leaving Ireland playing catch-up in the race to harness the advantages which our wind resources are offering.
Last year, the Norwegian renewable energy giant, Equinor, pulled out of a €2 billion wind farm project with the ESB off the coast of Clare. The reason given was its dissatisfaction with the regulatory and planning regime, which left the company uncertain of its investment and unable to formulate a strategic timeframe for the project. At the same time, energy companies are warning that the country’s creaking transmission network is not capable of carrying the extra output being planned. Unless grid capacity is increased, renewable energy cannot grow. And there is, as yet, little sign of investment in the grid network.
If offshore wind energy is going to provide an industrial bonanza to our coastal regions, as it should, it won’t fall out of the trees. Science predicts that the next generation of offshore turbines will be located on floating structures, since sea depths are too great to make fixed foundation turbines feasible. Such technology will require deep water ports with huge workspaces to manufacture and assemble those vast floating structures, involving thousands of workers. And where could be more suitable for such development than here on the west coast, in such close proximity to the source of wind energy?
But the question is whether, collectively, we have the vision and imagination to seize the opportunity and to claim for our western seaboard what the new science has to offer. Already, the UK is developing the ports, the specialised shipping vessels, the technological nous, the expert talent, to become a leader in offshore turbine production.
At home, the growing call is for a special deep water facility located on the east coast, close to where energy demand is greatest, or so the argument goes. The Atlantic coast may, in the end, find itself supplying all of the energy, but reaping none of the benefits.