Government must smooth planning kinks for renewables projects

Cantillon: Companies are sounding alarm bells about lengthy planning processes across Europe

Mainstream Renewable Power’s announcement on Tuesday that it is currently looking to develop three new energy projects off Ireland’s coasts could not have been better-timed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing turbulence that has roiled global energy markets have, in many ways, created facts on the ground in favour of further developing Ireland’s renewable energy capacities.

Renewables are certainly not a panacea to all of Ireland’s energy dilemmas around sustainability, security of supply and pricing. But more than just a means of achieving our climate goals, they can also be an important piece of armour, protecting Irish households from the vagaries of international fossil fuel pricing at times of instability and uncertainty.

Economic and Social Research Institute findings have shown, as energy economist Muireann Lynch wrote in The Irish Times earlier this year, that renewable energy has been a net gain for Irish consumers from a pricing perspective. In particular, the increasing use of solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy to partially power the national electricity grid has “suppressed electricity prices, with the reduction in energy bills greater than subsidy payments made to renewable energy producers”.

Moreover, despite seasonal issues around output, wind energy supplied 34 per cent of Ireland’s electricity needs in July, twice as much as July 2021.


Basic facts

There is broad acceptance of these basic facts from stakeholders. But Ireland still has a long way to go to reach the Government’s target for 80 per cent of Ireland’s electricity to be generated by renewable sources by 2030. Investors and companies active in the sector still have to clear a lot of hurdles to get their projects off the ground, not least on the planning front.

“The problem is not a lack of projects… we have over [20GW] of capacity under development,” Wind Energy Ireland chief executive Noel Cunniffe told an Oireachtas committee in March. “We have the projects. We have the investment. We have the teams who can deliver. But this does not change the fact that we are losing time.”

It would be tempting to see this as a very Irish problem but the opposite is true. Across Europe, renewable energy experts are sounding the alarm about often complex, convoluted and confused national planning processes.

Just this week, the chief executives of Denmark’s Vestas and Ørsted – the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and biggest offshore wind farm developer, respectively – have called for a bloc-wide review, aimed at figuring out how to “dramatically” shorten approval processes as the EU looks to wean itself of Russian gas.

Domestically, Wind Energy Ireland and others are calling on the Government to invest substantially in An Bord Pleanála and other bodies to smooth out kinks in the process. Without that at a minimum, a lot of momentum is sure to be squandered.