The first wind farm in Ireland was built in Bellacorick, Co Mayo in 1992, and consisted of 21 wind turbines with a capacity of 6.45 megawatts (MW).
“This important project will be seen in years to come as a landmark in the use of an environmentally benign renewable source of energy in this country and as having laid the foundation for others to follow,” Justice Minister Pádraig Flynn said at the time.
For years afterwards, however, progress in wind energy was slow. Bellacorick remained Ireland’s only wind farm until 1997, when three more were commissioned.
By 2000, there were 12 wind farms in operation, providing about 1% of the country’s electricity. The remaining 99% came from a mix of fossil fuels, including oil, coal, peat and primarily natural gas.
Wind farm developments began to ramp up in the 2000s as the EU set binding renewable energy targets to tackle climate change, and Ireland’s energy market fully opened to competition in 2005. Between 2003 and 2006, Ireland’s wind electricity capacity increased from 169 MW to 744 MW.
Since then, wind-generated electricity has continued to increase. Today, according to Wind Energy Ireland (WEI) – the industry representative group – there are just under 400 wind farms across the country, with a combined capacity of 4.3 gigawatts (4,309 MW).
In 2020, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), 32% of Ireland’s electricity came from wind generation, with just 8% coming from high carbon-emitting fossil fuels like coal and oil. The majority of the country’s electricity (51%) came from gas.
The government has set ambitious targets for renewable wind electricity. However, a number of significant challenges – including electrical grid capacity, slow offshore development, and issues with planning – mean that meeting those targets won’t be easy.
As a small island nation located at the western end of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, Ireland has enormous wind generation potential. Over the past two decades the country has gone from being a slow starter, to one of the leading producers of wind energy.
“We’re number one in the world for the share of electricity demand met by onshore wind. We’re actually number two in the world for the share of electricity met by wind in general,” says Justin Moran, head of communications with WEI.
“And that’s a huge, huge achievement.”
The Government’s latest target – contained in last month’s revised National Development Plan 2021-2030 – commits to having at least 70% and up to 80% of Ireland’s electricity provided by renewable sources by 2030. While this includes solar energy and other sources, wind will play by far the biggest role.
In order to meet these targets, Ireland will need to almost double its onshore wind generation (from 4.1 GW now to about 8 GW) and will need to hugely increase its offshore wind electricity (from just 25 MW today to 5 GW by 2030). So, is it possible?
“It’s going to be through a mixture of different measures that we will allow that challenge to be met,” says Paul Leahy, of UCC’s School of Engineering & Architecture, and the MaREI Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine Research.
“There’s absolutely no problem with the potential of wind here in Ireland. We’ve huge potential here, so that 70% growth target can very easily and comfortably be met through the actual potential wind resource that we have.”
However, Leahy sees significant challenges in a number of areas. These include being able to properly integrate wind-generated electricity into Ireland’s national grid, having proper storage, and having the interconnectivity between other countries to be able to export surplus electricity at times of high wind and import it when wind levels are low.
Justin Moran of WEI agrees:
“Our objective overall is net zero [emissions] by 2050. You cannot decarbonise heat and transport until you decarbonise electricity first… and you cannot decarbonise electricity without a stronger electricity grid,” he says.
In short, the electricity grid is how energy flows from the producers to the consumers. In Ireland, it is fully state owned and operated and managed by EirGrid and ESB Networks.
EirGrid has been commended for its success in integrating renewables into the grid over the past two decades. However, the current and future capacity of the grid, and its ability to shift from coal and peat-fired electricity and towards renewables, is of ongoing concern for government and industry professionals.
According to WEI, about 11% of the electricity generated by wind was lost last year as a result of the grid not being able to cope with the large volumes of energy.
Earlier this year, EirGrid launched a public consultation on the future of Ireland’s electricity and grid capabilities, and is due to publish a report before the end of the year, titled Shaping Our Electricity Future, which will outline the goals and challenges over the next decade.
Moran calls this report a “litmus test” of how serious the government is about reaching their renewable energy targets.
Conversely, there are also problems with when the wind doesn’t blow, and Ireland has to rely on carbon-emitting fossil fuels to make up the shortfall in electricity. The summer just gone saw record low wind levels in the country, which meant an increase in the use of gas.
This has focused minds on the need to ramp up Ireland’s offshore wind developments.
With a maritime area seven times the size of its landmass, Ireland also has enormous offshore wind electricity generating capabilities. But the country has been slow to develop these.
The first-ever offshore wind project here – the Arklow Wind Bank – was commissioned in 2004. But to date, it remains the country’s only offshore wind development, providing just 25 MW of electricity.
However this will change over the next decade, with the government setting a target of 5 GW (5,000 MW) of offshore wind electricity by 2030. This would mark a huge jump, without which Ireland will fail to meet its renewable energy targets.
Earlier this year, the government launched the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF).
Together with the Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021, which is currently before the Dáil, it will govern the rules around marine developments in the future.
There was criticism from opposition parties and civil society organisations back in April when the NMPF was passed through the Dáil without significant debate. Environmental Pillar – an umbrella organisation representing a number of NGOs and civil society groups – wrote to the government criticising the lack of consultation on the plan.
“Debate and participation would have provided opportunities to amend the plan, address flaws and make it more robust so that it works for all stakeholders,” the group said.
“Invariably this will lead to complications down the road in the planning process and in the review of decisions.”
Once the Bill becomes law (which is expected before the end of the year), developers will begin seeking planning permissions for huge offshore developments. However, some groups aren’t happy with the proposed plans.
Blue Horizon are a group of concerned locals from Waterford, including fishermen, environmentalists and business owners, who want to see a 22km “exclusion zone” for offshore wind turbines (meaning they don’t want them built within 22km of the shore).
Group spokesperson Niall Ó Faoláin tells The Journal that they are not against renewable energy or wind energy in general, and support onshore wind projects and ones further out to sea.
“We know the climate story, we’re very much in favour of renewable energy,” he says.
“All we want is that the same standards that are applied in the rest of the EU are applied to County Waterford. And those standards include minimum distances from shore for larger projects.”
Ó Faoláin says Blue Horizon has three main issues with developments being built too close to the shore. These are to do with local fishing rights, concerns for marine life and the environment, and the potential negative impact to tourism.
He says that larger projects in countries across Europe have an exclusion zone, and that the group wants the same for Ireland.
There are currently scoping projects ongoing from different energy companies for large scale wind farm projects off the coast of Waterford, some of which are within 22 km.
Justin Moran of WEI – representing wind developers – says that an exclusion zone is unfeasible due to the depth of Irish coastal waters, as turbines need to be built into seabed.
“Ireland’s coastal waters get very deep very quickly. One of the reasons these projects are being built 10 to 15 km from the coastline is because there actually isn’t space to develop them anywhere else within 22 km,” says Moran.
“If you have a 22 km exclusion zone for offshore wind in Ireland, you cannot build an offshore wind farm using a fixed bottom turbine. There’s literally nowhere in Ireland you can do it.”
Wind farms further out to sea require floating turbine technology. While there are some developments planned of this nature, Moran says the technology is not yet advanced and scaled up enough, and that Ireland will not meet its renewable energy targets if it relies on this technology alone.
Ó Faoláin says it is his understanding that floating turbine developments could be ready in time for the government to meet its 2030 targets. As things stand, however, it is highly unlikely that a 22 km exclusion zone will be included in the government’s regulations for offshore wind planning.
“What [government] are saying is that each project will be dealt with on a case by case basis, ultimately by An Bord Plenála… and I mean all we’d say to that is it’s a shame that they’re not following the standard set elsewhere in the EU,” says Ó Faoláin.
Again, Moran and WEI have a different opinion, and state that there is no blanket ban on wind developments close to the shore in the EU.
The concerns of Blue Horizon and its members highlights another potential roadblock to the rolling out of wind energy across the country. While Blue Horizon strongly states that they are in favour of wind energy developments in general, there are others who are not.
Proposed developments in Ireland face significant local opposition, as residents in the surrounding areas take issue with the scale, noise, proximity to houses, the visual impact and what they say are negative effects to the local environment.
From Kerry, Waterford and Cork up to Donegal and across the Midlands, many groups have sprung up over the past two decades to oppose planning being granted for developments for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes, these campaigners score a victory. For example, a recent High Court action taken by environmentalist Peter Sweetman saw a planning decision to allow Bord na Móna to build 24 wind turbines overturned. The High Court found that the application to build the windfarm did not contain the level of detail required to allow the planning authority grant permission.
This decision had a knock-on effect on other proposed developments, with planning permission being temporarily withdrawn for a development in Donegal, as the developers considered the ruling.
Sometimes, local opposition is borne out of the negative impacts some wind farm developments have had. For example, in 2003, during the construction of a 70 turbine wind farm in Galway, a landslide was caused on the Slieve Aughty mountains Derrybrien. The landslide sent tonnes of peat and debris down the mountainside, killing tens of thousands of fish and disrupting natural ecosystems.
In 2008, the European Court of Justice ruled against the Irish State for failure to carry out a proper Environmental Impact Assessment at the site. In 2019, the Irish State was fined €5 million in relation to the site, with further penalties of €15,000 per day, until the government assesses the impact of the development. To date, the state has accrued over €15 million worth of fines in relation to the wind farm.
Paul Leahy of UCC says that local opposition may make it more difficult for the government’s renewable energy targets to be met.
“It certainly makes it more challenging to make that target,” he says.
“It just really means that there needs to be very clear communication about the nature of projects that are being planned, and a clear process where people can voice their opinions and be heard.”
Leahy says that this clear communication, and consultation with local residents, is essential for any proposed wind developments. He also says planning applications need to be decided faster.
“We need more staff to deal with planning applications. Just turning around planning applications faster and that’s better for everybody. That’s one measure that can be done,” he says.
Justin Moran agrees:
“I think what’s needed more than anything is resources in An Bord Pleanála to move projects through the planning system more quickly.
“We’re not asking anyone to rewrite the planning system, it’s about ensuring the planning system operates quickly because it can take a very, very long time for a decision to be made.”
Moran also says that the revised Wind Energy Development Guidelines – which haven’t been updated since 2006 – need to be published as a matter of urgency, in order to give developers and local communities clarity on what is and isn’t permissible.
The review of the 2006 guidelines is addressing contentious parts of wind developments, including including sound or noise, visual amenity setback distances, shadow flicker (the effect of the sun shining through the blades of turbines), community obligation, community dividend and grid connections.
Recently in the Dáil, minister of state Peter Burke said government was working to “finalise and publish the revised guidelines as quickly as possible”.
With a number of different obstacles on the horizon, it’s clear that the journey to 80% renewable electricity won’t be a breeze.
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