The Irish midlands is about to change irrevocably over the next decade.
A number of companies are lining up to erect an estimated 450 wind turbines across the midlands, with billions of euro of investment and an estimated tens of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly employed there.
At a conference in Tullamore last Friday morning, entitled ‘Creating the new Midlands Economy’, speakers had the impatient certainty of someone who had just discovered an infinite source of oil – which, effectively, they have.
Windmills are not new, and God knows the the wind is certainly not new. A number of important circumstances and events have come together to suddenly make wind energy in the midlands a very exiting and profitable proposition for anyone with the resources to invest in it.
Technology, particularly in turbine blades, has improved greatly in recent years with the result that far less wind is required to produce electricity.
Secondly, Britain is facing a major energy crisis in the next couple of years. As more and more coal-fired plants are shutting down, the energy-hungry industrial heartland wants “our electrons, of any colour” as Bord na Mona CEO Gabriel Darcy puts it.
An EU Renewables Directive states that all member countries must get 40% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and the UK is way behind. (Several speakers noted that Ireland would easily reach that target.)
Third, another EU directive has, for the first time, allowed countries to import renewable energy to meet that committment.
The importance of Britain’s difficulty is that it gives Irish wind a guaranteed paying customer – and therefore makes large-scale investment a worthwhile proposition, because there’s a good profit to be made.
Ireland’s own domestic use of electricity is about five gigawatts, but if harnessed fully, we have the ability to produce up to 75 gigawatts from wind alone. Now that we can export it, we have an incentive to invest in producing large quantities.
During his speech, Mr. Darcy referenced the Bruckana wind farm in Mayo which Bord na Mona built 20 years ago. Explaining how it can take that long for an investment to be realised, he said it had now paid for itself. “We’re getting well paid for the electricity it produces and it’s costing us practically nothing to produce it.”
In the long term, that’s the holy grail for wind energy companies – to owe nothing on the infrastructure that is earning you money from harnessing an infinite resource.
It seems like money for old rope, but it’s expensive to get into it and the speakers know they will be waiting for decades for a return on investment.
For instance, Bord na Mona’s John Reilly spoke about spending seven years working on the wind farm at Mount Lucas, which will be the midlands’ first.
When it opens over the course of the next year, it will have 28 turbines, but over those seven years the company has spent millions developing the project.
Now that it’s well on its way, Bord na Mona intends to use it as an example of a successful but unobtrusive wind farm. Parts of their enormous 1,100 hectare site at Mount Lucas are so far from inhabitants that it can’t possibly interfere with anyone.
Their plan is build mountain bike trails on the site and have visitors come to see the turbines.
It should be operational by this time next year.
Of the €110 million that will be spent on the project, €10 million was spent on planning. And it was, Mr. Reilly explained, a bit of a punt. Several times, they walked away from it, thinking it was all over.
The amount of money that will be poured into the midlands will be immense. Kenneth Matthews, the CEO of the Irish Wind Energy Association estimated that somewhere in the region of €4.5 billion will be spent developing turbines over the next few years.
That money will go into buying the turbines obviously, but also into the construction, which will involve many thousands of jobs directly and indirectly.
Mr. Matthews said that it was a conservative estimate that more than 10,000 jobs will be created once the turbines are established.
He was estimating that based on 1.3 jobs per megawatt. All of the speakers, who claimed to be calculating it independently of each other, were calculating the jobs benefit at or around that figure.
Mr. Matthews also predicted that with the level of activity in wind energy, manufacturers of turbines and associated components were likely to establish themselves in Ireland, once more adding to the jobs associated with the projects.
And with the kind of expertise that would develop over time, he also predicted that a “Green IFSC” might develop over time.
All of the speakers, from Minister Pat Rabitte, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Reilly, Tim Cowhig of Greenwire and Andy Kinsella of Mainstream, remarked that they were “building a new industry”.
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