AS THE world economy catches its breath and prepares to advance, there never was a better time for the Government to promote renewable energy projects. Ireland offers the greatest average wave power in Europe, along with the most consistent wind energy. But the exploitation of these resources has been held up by the absence of high-powered electricity interconnectors to Britain. That is about to change. A new interconnector will be in place by the end of next year and more may follow.
Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power is expected to increase demand for natural gas and speed up the development of renewable projects. The European Commission has been pushing hard for the integration and liberalisation of the electricity market and has funded the construction of cross-border interconnectors. Here at home, a single, all-island electricity market exists and talks are taking place on the development of renewable, off-shore energy projects with the British/Irish Council along with ministers from Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The scale of such schemes is clear from an announcement made by Danish company Dong Energy in Belfast. It has arranged with Scottish Power Renewables to build an off-shore wind farm costing €1.8 billion in the Irish Sea. Turbines and foundations for the wind farm will be assembled at a new facility at Belfast Harbour and at least 300 jobs will be created. Harland Wolff is getting involved and Northern Ireland energy minister Arlene Foster expects the sector to grow rapidly in the coming years.
Wind farm and ocean/wave developments in the Republic are falling behind. Last year, applications for the development of off-shore wind farms in the Irish Sea alone envisaged the generation of 11,000 megawatts. But only 4,000 megawatts of that energy will come from Irish territorial waters. That may relate to long-standing interconnector problems. Whatever the reason, forward planning is needed to deal with such bottlenecks and greater attention will also have to be paid to the exploitation of renewable resources off the west coast. The wind speed and water turbulence there may be more challenging than in the Irish Sea but, with the use of more robust technologies, they also offer higher financial returns.
So far, the exploitation of wind energy has been developer-led and somewhat fragmented. Because of connection, technical and planning considerations, Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte now favours the concentration of wind turbines in large complexes, rather than the emergence of small, isolated wind farms. The same approach is likely to apply to off-shore facilities, where wave, tidal and wind generators can be located close together. Provision of meshed networks in the Irish and Celtic Seas would reduce the cost of cabling and production while allowing for transmission to similar facilities in Britain and, perhaps, in France. Such a step-up in renewable energy production will be costly. But failure to grasp the opportunities now offered in terms of job creation, energy security and electricity exports would be a disaster.