Wind energy industry set for massive expansion
Since 1992 wind’s share of the electricity market has been increasing and it now stands at 18%
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.