Val Cummins is probably the only person in Irish corporate life who has dissected 3,000 edible periwinkles. She studied – not ate – the creatures during a masters in zoology at University College Cork. If the experience hasn't marked her, it has certainly stayed with her. On trips to the seaside with her family, she confesses she still can't resist having a look into rock pools.
If what happens on the seabed occupied part of her student life, her interests now lie very much on the surface. Cummins is managing director of Project Emerald, a joint venture between local player Simply Blue Energy and oil major Shell, to build a floating wind farm off the south coast to generate electricity to supply Irish and potentially European markets. Emerald says it could generate enough power to supply about 800,000 homes.
Simply Blue is the brainchild of Sam Roch-Perks, its managing director, and Hugh Kelly, its commercial director. Both are engineers with experience of running businesses, including in the energy industry. Kelly is a former president of the Irish Exporters' Association. Their company also has interests in wave energy and aquaculture.
Floating wind power does just that: it floats. The turbines stand on platforms or submersible structures that are anchored on rather than pile-driven into the seabed. Its big advantage, according to Cummins, is that the turbines can be located far out to sea, over the horizon, where they capture more wind, and so can generate more power – without affecting the sea views of coastal residents.
What’s different is that the wind blows uninterrupted further out to sea, “so it has almost endless potential, and we have a maritime area that’s 10 times our landmass”. she says. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity. It’s not just that it meets our requirements, it’s very much about that opportunity to scale up to export.”
Studies have shown that the Celtic Sea, off the Republic's south coast, has what Cummins calls an "exploitable" resource of 50 gigawatts (GW). To put that in context, one GW is 1,000 megawatts (MW). The average gas-burning power plant in the Republic generates 400MW. On that basis, floating wind in the Celtic Sea could produce the same amount of electricity as 125 power plants.
Getting the Republic to its net-zero carbon goal by 2050 will require us to build wind power plants capable of generating 25GW of electricity. Cummins argues that most of that will come from floating wind.
"The European demand is more than 1,000GW by 2050, so Europe is the obvious market in terms of potential for export."
Export by cable
The electricity could be exported simply through cables – interconnectors – that link the floating wind power plants to the national and then European grids, which transmit it to the networks that ultimately distribute energy to homes and businesses.
Europe is planning a “supergrid”, an overarching transmission network that will ultimately tie all power sources together, pool electricity across the region, make better use of renewables and – hopefully – create a market that will cut energy costs. Several projects in the Republic, including the interconnector running from the south coast to Brittany, will form part of this.
As technology progresses, another option may be to use wind-generated electricity to produce green hydrogen by applying an electrical charge to water and then pumping it through gas networks. Many businesses are already working on commercialising this approach.
The EU has pledged to invest €150 billion in developing green hydrogen technology between now and 2030. Brussels also wants all member states to come up with their own strategies for using this technology, something the Republic has yet to do.
States are going to play a big part in advancing all of this. Cummins chairs the Irish Wind Energy Association's floating wind working group and is a council member of the Marine Renewables Industry Association, so she is going to be lobbying a lot in coming years.
She argues that Irish politicians will have to begin backing floating wind now to ensure that its potential is unlocked over the next decade. “It’s going to be subject to a lot of choices that are going to be made by policymakers over the next few years,” she acknowledges. “Our challenge is to join the dots here, to work out how we are going to start. That needs to happen in this decade.”
Floating wind is not yet a mature technology, but she stresses that it should be competitive mid-decade as its costs are falling rapidly. However, those costs are high. The capital spending needed for 1GW of power – the equipment and building the facility – is about €2 billion, while planning costs are about €100 million. “So for Emerald (which is 1.3GW), you are looking at capital expenditure of upwards of €2 billion to develop a wind farm like that,” she points out.
Overall, developers are currently looking at 8GW of floating wind around the Irish coast, which is a big commitment. Investors including Simply Blue Energy and Shell need certainty before they take the plunge.
Bidding by generators
This is one place where the State can step in, Cummins argues. Last year, the Government launched a new Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS) to replace the guaranteed minimum electricity prices offered to generators to encourage onshore wind farm development.
The RESS also offers guaranteed prices, but operates in a different way to the old Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff, which simply offered generators 15 cent a kilowatt hour for their electricity if they succeeded in building wind farms and connecting them to the grid. Under the new system, generators bid against each other for support at auctions where lower-priced offers win out.
To qualify, the proposed wind and solar farms must have planning permission and be promised grid connections. Electricity customers pay for the RESS through a public service obligation on their bills. The Government estimates the scheme will generate about €2 billion to support renewable energy.
National electricity grid operator Eirgrid will hold the next auction in the last quarter of this year or the opening three months of 2022. "Three offshore wind RESSs will take place between now and 2025," Cummins points out.
“We’re hoping that the Government will introduce a round specific to floating wind in its auction in 2025. There’s 8GW in the pipeline, we need to open the door and the RESS is one mechanism.”
So far, the RESS has been earmarked to provide backing for onshore and offshore wind and solar power. The last two are new additions; the old scheme did not offer support to those technologies. However, there is no guarantee that the scheme will be adjusted to include a specific round for floating wind.
Cummins insists the RESS is the key to triggering investment in floating wind here, as its backing will make the technology competitive. "To be fair to investors, they have come to Ireland because it's an exciting emerging market. I think the risk of government not backing a floating wind element in the RESS in 2025 is the potential loss of that inward investment."
So does that mean the investors will back out? “I would say they need certainty around the RESS,” she says. “Projects will be delayed and confidence will wane. That will have huge consequences for the Government meeting its targets.” Those targets envisage generating 70 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and reaching the net zero carbon goal by 2050.
Alongside other offshore operators, floating wind developers also want the Oireachtas to press ahead with passing the Maritime Area Planning Bill, which aims to overhaul a regime governed by legislation dating back to 1933. It will create a new marine area regulator, include guidelines for offshore wind energy development and establish protected areas.
Accounting for all those variables is a big undertaking. Government approved a general scheme for the Bill in 2019, and it is now at the pre-legislative stage. Even at this point, key elements of what is now heading towards the Oireachtas have been altered several times. Cummins seems optimistic about its progress, but she cautions “without this, nothing will happen”.
If Cummins wasn't responsible for the Emerald project, she could well be advising on the Bill itself. A love of the sea, sparked by sailing on the Asgard as a teenager, led to her doing a BSc in marine geography in Cardiff University. She then returned to Cork where she did her masters in zoology, focused on those periwinkles.
She has since completed a PhD in coastal governance. She is an Eisenhower Fellow and took part in women in leadership executive training at Harvard University in the US.
Shellfish might seem a bit divorced from giant energy projects, but she points out that zoology is very much about measuring and managing the distribution of resources. Those studies led to a career during which she was director of the Coastal and Marine Research Centre in University College Cork (UCC) for eight years to 2010, where she grew staff to 40 from 10.
She subsequently co-founded and ran the Irish Maritime and Energy Resource Cluster, an organisation backed by UCC, Cork Institute of Technology and the Irish Naval Service, until 2017. This produced the Beaufort Research Laboratory in Ringaskiddy, now home to 150 marine and energy researchers.
Both centres focus on research that can be commercialised and tackle challenges, including the need to shift to renewable energy from burning fossil fuel. Working for both organisations meant Cummins moved regularly between the academic and commercial worlds.
She has also lectured in marine resource management and ocean innovation in UCC, worked on Science Foundation Ireland’s Eirwind project – which aimed to develop a blueprint for offshore wind – and contributed to the UN World Ocean Assessment. Cummins joined Simply Blue last year.
She agrees that it needs political will to get much of what her business needs to invest across the line, but believes this is coming.
“I remember being told by one prominent politician a few years ago ‘Val, there are no votes in the marine.’ That politician has since changed, and is showing immense leadership now.”
One-fifth of the Irish Free State's budget went into Ardnacrusha, its first hydroelectric project, in 1927. Cummins maintains that similar vision will be needed to achieve the changes needed in our current energy system, including opening the door to floating wind.
She argues that the State cannot afford to repeat the mistake it made in 2004, when the original Arklow Bank offshore wind project was proposed, and looked likely to make the Republic one of the leaders in this industry. Market support did not materialise, so the development stalled. Meanwhile, the UK backed offshore wind, and streaked far ahead of this State.
“We can’t afford to be laggards in this regard,” Cummins warns. “There is an opportunity for us to develop a whole new industrial strategy.”
Val Cummins: Waves of power
Name: Val Cummins
Position: Managing director, Project Emerald
Why is she in the news? The joint venture between Simply Blue Energy and Shell intends building a large floating wind farm off the south coast.
Family: Married to musician Keith Cotter with three children.
Something that won't surprise: She has a love of all things maritime.
Something that might surprise: She is a contributing editor to Cork University Press's forthcoming Coastal Atlas.