From a position of being the bedrock of Irish electricity generation using fossil fuels, Moneypoint – Ireland's last coal-burning power station – is ideally located to switch to a renewables hub for harnessing vast offshore wind resources off the west coast. That is according to ESB generation and trading executive director, Jim Dollard.
Is the ESB up for the challenges posed by establishing windfarms in the challenging environment of the Atlantic? “We are, is the short answer,” he says. They have talked to those who have developed offshore technologies in different parts of the world, where there are trying conditions.
“We have asked them, ‘Do you see the Atlantic posing any undue difficulties?’ And the answer to that is no. The [floating] technologies are established,” Dollard adds – floating windfarms are more suited to turbulent sea conditions.
Obviously, site selection and the consent process – “all the usual diligence” – has to be got right, he says, but “there is nothing in the Atlantic that should form an unreasonable barrier to development”.
Asked if upwards of 30 gigawatts (GW) is realisable, as being touted by the Government, he replies: “I think the energy is out there... It’s a matter of how and when. I don’t think it’s whether.”
The ESB is going to play its part by increasing renewables business by a factor of four and its Green Atlantic @ Moneypoint programme is aligned with the Government’s ambitious decarbonisation targets, he adds, and is further indication of ESB’s intent on leading the transition.
As announced on Friday, the hub will be built in four phases over the next decade. Construction is to start immediately on a €50 million synchronous compensator to allow more renewables onto the grid.
Second is the building of a 1.4 GW floating offshore windfarm off the coast of Clare and Kerry with Equinor, the ESB’s Norwegian partner for the project, in two phases at a cost of “€2 billion plus” – with the first power scheduled for 2028 with the capacity to power 1.6 million homes.
The site is also being repurposed for the construction and assembly of floating offshore foundations for its windfarms and others off the west coast. The transformation has begun; there is already an onshore windfarm on the extensive site; “before you see the chimneys... you’ll see the windfarm”, Dollard says.
The fourth element is moving into green hydrogen. “Development of hydrogen is a critical part of the renewables future,” he says. They see Moneypoint as ideally placed, using offshore wind for the generation of the gas for use in decarbonising the economy.
Moneypoint has distinct advantages when it comes to acting as a renewables hub, Dollard notes. It is a very large site with an adjoining deepwater port, perfect for servicing large windfarms, and storing and exporting hydrogen, he says. “The huge attraction aligned to that is it’s on the west coast and there is a vast natural resource of offshore wind [there].”
Moreover, the west coast can play an essential role in “the large task that the State and, I suppose, the world expects of us... the decarbonisation of the whole of the Irish economy” – not just electricity but also transport and heat. Within that broader context, “offshore is ideally placed; we have that resource”.
Harnessing wind energy to generate hydrogen by electrolyser technology provides the fuel for a range of uses: for industrial purposes; as a fuel in heavy goods vehicles; and there is evidence of increasing demand for its use in ships, buses and trains.
It can also be used in power generation, Dollard points out. In effect, you have the ability to store wind energy and to use it later for electricity generation, he explains.
While battery storage is important – the ESB has built two battery storage units at its sites in Inchicore (Dublin) and Aghada (Cork); one is planned for Poolbeg (Dublin)– hydrogen provides storage ability at a much larger scale.
Storage of electricity is the key part of the decarbonisation solution, he underlines, especially in addressing intermittency, on the days you don’t have the wind and solar, “hydrogen effectively closes the gap”.
Getting out of coal is on schedule for 2025, and the plant will continue to provide essential back-up – but not in the central way it operated 24/7, 365 days a year in the past. The advent of renewables has already changed its significance on the energy grid, he says.
The positive impact for the region will be in building “an enduring capability around servicing and maintenance” and sustained employment.
Moneypoint, Dollard says, has been the bedrock of the Irish electricity system over the past 40 years; “it has been a phenomenal servant to the system”.
It will continue to be crucial, he says, but in much changed circumstances. “It’s exciting to see that, and I think it’s an exciting step in our renewables journey.”