The green dream of cheap, clean, wind-generated electricity is blowing a little cooler of late. This week a report by RTE’s Prime Time calculated that this so-called free energy source will actually cost the country €10bn over the next 10 years.
And in the last month a series of planning applications for wind farms has been scuppered after complaints by local communities.
Campaigners have long claimed that wind energy is not as cheap nor as environmentally friendly as claimed by its proponents. Now they are brewing up a storm. Is the wind about to change for wind power?
In Gort, Co Galway, Bord Gais’s plans to build a 16-turbine wind farm was refused last month by An Bord Pleanala because of concerns it would adversely affect the Hen Harrier, a rare bird of prey. The same bird scuppered an application to extend an existing wind farm in Co Clare.
In another setback, an extension to a wind farm at near Cashel also got the thumbs-down from South Tipperary County Council last month.
But it was the Prime Time claim that wind power is far from cheap that really put the wind up the sector.
If wind energy has a poster boy it’s Eddie O’Connor who founded Airtricity, which pioneered wind farms in Ireland. He made an estimated €50m when the company was sold in 2008 to Scottish and Southern Energy. He has since founded a new company, Mainstream Renewable Power, to build and sell wind farms throughout the world.
O’Connor described the Prime Time programme as “a disgrace” and cited the now well-worn mantra of the sector that “wind is free”.
While this is true, installing a wind farm is far from cheap. Once installed the energy is generated at very little cost – but unfortunately this is not passed on to the end-user.
In order to encourage investment in the sector the Government has agreed to guarantee the price of wind-generated electricity. The price is always a few cent more than electricity generated from other sources of power and there is a minimum price paid, regardless of market fluctuations.
So in return for their initial high investment, wind-energy companies get a guaranteed income, paid for by the rest of us.
But O’Connor is persuasive. He has a long list of the other advantages of wind power. The price of wind-generated electricity is stable, he points out, while the cost of fossil fuels has fluctuated considerably in recent years. Where it is generated in remote areas of the country, the cost of providing energy to those areas is far less than if it were transmitted from central power stations. If objectors believe that wind farms are damaging to the local environment, O’Connor rightly points out they do not release harmful carbon dioxide gases.
The most profound benefit of wind power he believes is that it will make Ireland self-sufficient energy-wise.
This is the carrot that wind fans use to justify the stick of making consumers subsidise the sector. At the moment Ireland imports €6bn worth of fossils fuels a year. According to many in the wind industry, in the future we can actually export our wind power to the rest of Europe. It’s an extraordinary ambition and would require even more investment in the wind sector.
As a member of the EU, Ireland is committed to providing 16pc of its energy needs through renewable sources by the year 2020. But the Government has already decided to go a step further and aims to provide 40pc of our energy needs through renewable energy sources, mostly wind power, within that time frame.
Michael Walsh of the Irish Wind Energy Association admits that while wind energy accounts for about 15pc of total electricity usage in Ireland, it has made little difference to the price paid by consumers because of the supports provided to the sector. But he is adamant that it will eventually pay dividends by way of cheaper electricity bills. His organisation is putting together a report which, he claims, will show exactly that. Walsh cites an all-Ireland grid study from some years ago which found that if wind supplied 40pc of our demand, the cost would only by slightly higher than with traditional fuels. He points out that at the time oil was as cheap as €35 a barrel.
“There’s no question that recent investment in the wind sector stands up to a cost-benefit analysis,” he says.
That may well be the case but it’s clearly not evident yet.
Meanwhile the country is well on track to meet its current wind energy ambitions. The huge increase in wind farms has meant that at times over the last year, wind energy supplied 50pc of demand, according to Eirgrid. But because the wind, by its very nature, changes it’s not a reliable source of energy. During the recent cold snap, when demand rose sharply, wind energy met just 14pc of requirements.
Over the course of a year, a wind farm will only produce 30pc of its potential capacity because of fluctuations in the wind. So regardless of how much wind capacity we build in Ireland, we will still need traditional power stations to provide us with electricity when there is little wind. If and when wind capacity exceeds demand in Ireland, we have no way of storing it.
But given that we have plenty of wind, even if it is sporadic, with sufficient capacity we could technically start supplying other nations at times of peak capacity.
According to Walsh, this dream is feasible but it is dependent on other factors. The two most significant issues are the cost of the interconnector which will send our wind energy into other markets and the potential demand in other markets . Walsh believes that Europe could be persuaded to fund at least part of the cost of an interconnector. Demand for our wind energy in Europe may well be there, he says.
But if the cost-benefit analysis of providing 40pc of our energy needs from wind is a little dated, a detailed study of plans to turn Ireland into a net exporter of energy is non-existent.
It would certainly mean a great many more wind farms. According to Peter Crossan, it could mean a turbine in every townland in Ireland . To encourage such an investment, the end-user of electricity in Ireland would continue to pay slightly more for wind energy. This at a time when the country is being urged to reduce the cost of doing business.
Aside from local objectors to wind farms, the green dream, wind-energy machine has had a remarkably easy ride until now. But it’s clearly time to ask serious questions. Have we already gone too far in deciding to make wind energy provide 40pc of our electricity needs? And is there anything more than wishful thinking behind the dream that Ireland could ever be a net exporter of energy? The answers are unlikely to be blowing in the wind.
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