The number of wind turbines dotting the landscape looks set to double between now and 2020, according to reliable estimates.
There are more than 1,100 turbines in operation in Ireland, mostly at 176 onshore “wind farms”, with a further seven offshore at Arklow Bank.
That figure could be even higher if ambitious plans by Element Power for 40 new wind farms in the midlands materialise. With a proposed investment of €8 billion and the prospect of 3,000 permanent jobs, the company says this vast project would supply 3,000 megawatts of electricity to the British national grid via a pair of dedicated under-sea cables.
Mainstream Renewable Power, headed by Eddie O’Connor, is also proposing an “Energy Bridge” between Ireland and Britain using wind power generated here to meet Britain’s need for renewable energy. This requirement is particularly acute given its commitment to close down 15,000 megawatts of inefficient, polluting coal-fired power stations by 2022.
The Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) is enthusiastic about the prospects. Chief executive Kenneth Matthews says there is “a potential for Ireland to develop an offshore wind industry”, generating 10 gigawatts of electricity, because water depths on our side of the Irish Sea are significantly less than on the British side.
To put the 10 gigawatts in perspective, it’s double the peak demand for electricity in the State. If this was to work, however, Matthews says the new 500-megawatt east-west interconnector would need to be supplemented by a much larger line – although this could be delivered by “export projects” such as Element and Mainstream.
O’Connor has claimed that Mainstream’s Energy Bridge project “will create 40,000 jobs here” – a figure that includes temporary jobs in construction. At present, approximately 2,000 are employed in the sector.
Since the first wind farm was installed in 1992 at Bellacorrick, Co Mayo, wind’s share of the electricity market rose to 5 per cent in 2005 and 18 per cent this year. At times, up to 50 per cent of electricity demand has been met by wind, forcing even the ESB’s large coal-fired Moneypoint plant off the grid.
“We have 2,000 megawatts installed now – enough to power 1.3 million homes – and we need to install an additional 2,000 megawatts to reach [the EU] targets”, he says. These targets, set in 2007, specify that 20 per cent of our energy must be met from renewable sources by 2020; in the electricity sector, most will come from wind.
Driven by former minister for energy and now Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, the Government is committed to a 40 per cent share for renewables by 2020. Ryan’s successor, Pat Rabbitte, has been “very supportive of the sector”, according to Matthews, particularly in securing the “Refit-3” programme.
Under Refit, an acronym for Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff, investors in wind or other renewables such as biomass are guaranteed a “floor price” for electricity supplied to the national grid. “At €66 per megawatt hour, it’s one of the lowest tariffs in Europe”, says Matthews. The cost of this implicit subsidy for wind is €40 million per year.
The IWEA also points to a 2010 report it commissioned from British consultants Redpoint, which showed that Ireland could meet 45 per cent of its electricity demand from wind power and reduce wholesale electricity prices by €250 million per annum. For consumers, this would translate into an annual saving of €38 on electricity bills in 2020.
Matthews believes that wind would become truly competitive if the EU fixed a minimum price of €20 per tonne for carbon, thus making fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – more expensive. At present, it is just more than €7 per tonne. If the price of carbon was tripled, he says, this would “force a seismic shift” in energy policies throughout the EU.
Wind farms need grid connections, so inevitably there will be more power lines and pylons in the Irish landscape. But the IWEA insists that much of the new infrastructure being planned by Eirgrid will serve thermal generating stations as much as wind farms. It also argues that a better grid is needed to attract inward investment.
An Bord Pleanála has also become more indulgent in dealing with wind farm projects, with a rate of approval reaching 66 per cent over the past two years; the rest are turned down mainly on visual amenity grounds.
The IWEA has 250 member companies, including wind farm developers and those involved in servicing them, including lawyers, accountants and engineers as well as turbine manufacturers. Matthews is a former ESB engineer who managed the Ardnacrusha hydro-electric station for several years.
“I would love a world where we could build wind turbines close to city centres,” he says. “There’s no reason why they couldn’t be located in Dublin Bay, like in Copenhagen.” There 20 turbines with slow-moving rotor blades are located in the Øresund, just 3.5km from the city centre.
WIND RESISTANCE: OPPOSITION MOUNTS
OPPOSITION TO wind energy is growing, with the formation last June of a campaign representing community groups in 13 counties from Donegal to Wexford.
Yvonne Cronin, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Responsible Engagement with Wind Energy (Crewe) Ireland, said it aimed to inform the public about the impact of wind farms as well as lobby politicians to “protect the human rights” of those living in areas where wind turbines are being planned. One of Crewe’s first moves was to support a Private Member’s Bill introduced in the Seanad by John Kelly, Labour Senator from Roscommon.
The great value of Senator Kelly’s Bill, in Crewe’s view, is that it would lay down a minimum “separation distance” of 1.5km between wind turbines and the nearest occupied house. At present, planning guidelines on the development of wind farms specify a distance of 500m, or closer with landowner consent.
At Crewe’s first meeting in Strokestown, Co Roscommon, participants spoke about the “powerlessness” which many communities felt when engaging with the planning system. Several also voiced fears that their families would suffer because of exposure to the “relentless noise” of turbines sited near their homes.
Alun Evans, emeritus professor of public health at Queen’s University Belfast, spoke about his “guest editorial” in the British Medical Journal earlier this year suggesting that wind turbines “disturb sleep and impair health” at the distances permitted.
Senator Kelly concedes that his Bill “hasn’t progressed at all” beyond its second reading. He blames lobbying by the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) and civil servants who want to “kill it off”. All he has is a promise from Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte that distances would be looked at.
In the Dáil on May 8th, replying to Michael Healy-Rae (Ind, Kerry South), who expressed concern about the the “implications” of Senator Kelly’s Bill, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it “has not been adopted by the Government”.
The IWEA believes restrictions along the lines proposed “would destroy investment in onshore wind energy”, according to chief executive Kenneth Matthews. It lobbied against the Bill and defeated an attempt in Co Donegal to introduce a 1km “separation distance” in the county plan.
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