For the past few years, a stretch of low-lying bogland in Co Offaly has been the go-to place for parents and their young children at Christmas time. It is here, not far from the small town of Daingean, that one of the country’s more unusual Santa experiences takes place.
The location is the Mount Lucas Wind Farm and a Yuletide buzz is generated among the 28 vertiginous turbines that are dotted throughout the 1,000-hectare expanse.
“We have turned Mount Lucas into a community amenity,” says manager Catherine Swaine, “and while the pandemic has put a temporary stop to many of the things we like to do here, it is a resource that people use all the time.”
Some 10km of walkways remain open all year round and when Covid restrictions are lifted, Swaine will be able to welcome back busloads of schoolchildren who come to learn about both traditional bogs and the windmills that have replaced them.
For decades, Mount Lucas was a commercial bog operated by Bord na Móna. Peat was harvested to feed the electricity plants that were built around the vast Bog of Allen in the years after independence.
Now, most turf-fuelled power stations have closed. They are remnants of a time when ‘sustainability’ was not part of the lexicon. Now, in place of heavy machinery relentlessly cutting into the bog and its unique ecosystem, Bord na Móna is pinning its future on wind power. And Mount Lucas is a key part of the picture.
“It’s all about clean energy,” Swaine says. “The bog is returning to its natural state.”
If the exploitation of our bogs is fast becoming a thing of the past, wind farms like Mount Lucas – the country’s fourth largest by output – are very much part of our present.
Since the first wind turbine linked to the national grid was erected in 1992, there has been an enormous growth in their number. Today, there are 250 wind farms and about 2,000 turbines in the Republic of Ireland and several more are planned.
The vast majority have been built on land – ‘onshore’, in the parlance of wind energy specialists – but over the next decade, the country is likely to see several wind farms built off the coast, most of them on the Irish Sea thanks to favourably shallow water depths, seabed conditions and wave patterns.
This week, it was announced that up to 60 ‘supersize’ turbines are being planned for a stretch of water just past Dublin Bay. The developers of the project, known as Dublin Array, took the unusual step of initiating public consultation in advance of completing a planning application.
German energy firm RWE and the Irish company Saorgus want to build the turbines 10km off the east coast and close to Dublin. The windmills would be 310 metres high, 50pc taller than the Poolbeg chimneys when their blades are factored in. They would be clearly visible from Dún Laoghaire’s popular walking spot, the East Pier.
Peter Lefroy, the Dublin Array project director, says the developers are conscious of the visual impact, “especially as the Dublin region has never been exposed to a lot of wind energy in the past”.
“This,” he adds, “is why we have gone out early on consultation and are engaging with a wide range of stakeholders.”
RWE and Saorgus claim that up to 600,000 homes will benefit from the wind farm’s electricity generating capability.
If the scheme is approved, Dublin will join a list of other coastal European capitals, most notably Copenhagen, with multiple wind turbines clearly visible at sea.
While rural communities have long had collective conversations about these imposing structures in the vicinity, it’s the first time that denizens of the capital have had to think about wind energy derived from something they can actually see.
Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, a Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire, tweeted that she was “instinctively in favour as part of an essential shift to cleaner energy but want to read more on the practicalities”.
Most of the responses to her tweet tended to be in favour of the development, with one Twitter user arguing that “if we Dubliners decide we don’t want offshore generation, we’re essentially saying we want more onshore transmission… [we] need to consider the impact of our energy use on rural Ireland.”
For geoscientist Mark Coughlan, the development of offshore wind farms is crucial. “If we are to stop depending on fossil fuels and the likes of Moneypoint [the Clare power plant that relies on coal], we have to pursue offshore wind,” he says. “There’s huge potential there and it’s a key driver if we are to be fully committed on climate control.”
Coughlan says nuclear power is another clean option, but Ireland has long resisted such power generation. “Offshore turbines have the potential to generate far more electricity than those onshore,” he says. “The turbines used at sea are far, far bigger than those on land and, in simple terms, the bigger you go, the more you can generate.”
Offshore wind specialist Cian Desmond of Gavin and Doherty Geosolutions says the Dublin Array project is a positive pointer about what is to come. “Some of those turbines can generate 14 megawatts,” he says. “Many of the onshore ones are three megawatts. There’s a huge difference. And it’s far cheaper now to build turbines at sea than it was 10, 20 years ago.”
Desmond, who was the organiser of a major wind energy conference at University College Cork in June last year, says changes to Irish marine planning laws, including that of an antiquated act from 1933, has made it easier for developers to contemplate building at sea.
Up to now, only one development – Arklow Bank, off the coast of Wicklow – has been constructed offshore. That wind farm was opened in 2004, but the emphasis has been on land since then.
“I’m very supportive of the Dublin Array project, especially as the developers have gone about it the right way. They want to engage with stakeholders,” says Desmond. “In the early days of wind power, there was a gold-rush feel to it and developers often didn’t engage properly with local people and interest groups. There’s a strong sense that that’s changing – and for the better.”
Henry Fingleton is not as enthused about wind energy. The entrepreneur from Co Laois heads the People Over Wind lobby group and says turbines have caused considerable anxiety to those who live in their shadow.
“They’re a blight on the landscape,” he says, “but not just that, they can be extremely noisy – and that noise can travel a long way. For those living very close, there’s that flickering shadow to contend with.
“I used to be very supportive of the idea of wind power,” he adds, “but then I saw the way some operators would come in and put them up without any consultation with local people, I began to feel very differently. The narrative is always that wind power is good, but that’s far too simplistic. Ask the people who had to go to the High Court because they were forced out of their homes due to the noise.”
Earlier this year, three Co Cork siblings were awarded a €225,000 settlement after taking a High Court case claiming that a 10-turbine wind farm some 700m from their home had led to several illnesses including nosebleeds, earaches and headaches.
Fingleton questions the effectiveness of wind farms in reducing Ireland’s CO2 output. “Wind farms help generate electricity, but electricity makes up just 20pc of our energy requirements. And of the electricity that’s generated, the majority is still done through fossil fuels and at places like Moneypoint, which burns a huge amount of coal every day. For someone living in the shadow of a huge turbine, that’s a fact that’s very hard to swallow.”
David Connolly of the Irish Wind Energy Association says wind farms are helping to generate an ever-growing proportion of the country’s electricity. “About 36 to 37pc of our electricity consumption is provided by wind energy,” he says, adding that Ireland now ranks second in the world, behind Denmark, for the share of its electricity provided by wind power. “That’s a remarkable achievement considering that it’s only in the past 15 or so years that the sector has really taken off here.”
Connolly says he would like to see electricity bills prominently itemise how much of a household’s electricity requirements are met through renewable energy such as wind power. “I think it would give consumers a greater connection between the electricity they use and the manner in which it is generated. Sometimes there is a disconnect there.”
With an increase in both onshore and offshore wind generation, Connolly believes it is possible for Ireland to achieve a 70pc proportion of all electricity generated by renewable energy come 2030.
“We’re definitely heading in the right direction and I think there’s large support for wind power,” he says. “People understand how important climate control is and they know that we have to continue to reduce a dependency on fossil fuels.”
For Kate Ruddock, deputy director of Friends of the Earth, wind power is vital for the country’s future energy requirements. “Simply put, renewable energy displaces fossil fuels from the energy system and we are already seeing the fruits of that in Ireland,” she says.
While she acknowledges that wind farms have sometimes met local resistance, she says there is a growing number of community-owned wind projects. “It’s a powerful thing when a community or a group of citizens come together to build a renewable energy project,” she says. “It makes the generation of electricity feel more tangible.”
However, she believes wind power should be one of several sustainable approaches taken as Ireland tries to reduce its carbon footprint. “There is great potential in solar power but it isn’t being rolled out enough,” she says. “It tends to be looked down on in the planning laws, yet the example of Scotland is one that we should bear in mind. Solar power has really been embraced there.”
Ultimately, she feels that a reduction in energy use is what will best help Ireland to go greener. “We have to be mindful of the energy we’re using,” she says, “and to find ways to reduce it.”