We tend to think of the modern wind turbine as a recent invention. In fact, it dates to the late 1890s. The Danish physicist and inventor Poul La Cour invented the basic turbine technology to generate electricity. His 1903 windmill design for the village of Askov became a prototype electrical power plant that supplied electricity until 1958. Thanks to La Cour and the electricians he trained, wind supplied 3 per cent of Danish electricity by 1918. Mirroring the co-operative movement in Ireland, rural communities embraced the technology for warmth, lighting, and to mechanise agriculture.
The Danish government was the first country to bring in large subsidies for renewables in the 1970s including the feed-in-tariff system, which was successfully replicated in Germany. In addition, local energy co-operatives were incentivised by tax breaks to set up wind farms. By 2001, wind turbine co-operatives, representing more than 100,000 families, had installed 86 per cent of all turbines in Denmark.
What can we learn from the Danish story? Ireland has an impressive record in developing onshore wind and integrating it into a stand-alone grid. But significant barriers remain. A recent report commissioned by Wind Energy Ireland warned that without acceleration of Eirgrid’s plan for grid improvements, the target for generating 80 per cent of Ireland’s electricity with renewables by 2030 will simply not be realised. Given the scale of the energy crisis, shouldn’t Ireland really be going for broke, and treating the rapid deployment of renewables as our moon shot opportunity?
When wind energy was being developed in Ireland in the 1990s, it was seen as a financial opportunity. I was a student on the Renewable Energy course offered by the Tipperary Institute in 2002-2003, and back then it was not framed as an opportunity for a socio-technical transition to a clean energy system. In contrast to Denmark, where communities, NGOs and scientists led the campaigns for renewables and clean energy, in Ireland the public was not envisaged as a serious stakeholder – we could air our views; we could object; but we did not have a “stake”. Decision-making is still dominated by procedural, financial and technical considerations, instead of sociopolitical ones.
Due to the scale and costs associated with wind nowadays, it was inevitable that the capital and project management expertise of large utilities and energy companies would be needed to expand the sector. However, insufficient attention was paid by the government to the importance of public support and community ownership of Ireland’s renewable resources, and to the need to communicate effectively and independently the benefits of renewable energies.
As a result, every onshore wind farm proposal now meets objections and delays, sometimes founded on myths about health impacts or noise – all of which have been thoroughly debunked by repeated investigations over the past decade, but which still dominate the airwaves and social media. Political support on the ground for onshore wind is lukewarm at best.
The somewhat brutalist appearance of modern turbines atop our mountains belies the beautiful physics that dictates their design. Just like the bicycle, the wind turbine is an almost perfect example of an emancipatory pollution-free technology. Also, when it comes to wind energy, bigger is better, so it might be time to let go of our attachment to “small is beautiful”.
The biggest offshore wind turbines in the world are now in development phase at a nameplate capacity of 16MW with a swept area of over 43,000m2, equivalent to six soccer pitches. Each turbine has the potential to power over 20,000 homes.
Maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t understand why wind turbines aren’t everywhere, on farms, on our rooftops, industrial estates and along our coasts. It’s true that some bad planning decisions have been made. Poorly sited wind farms can have a negative ecological impact. But underlying many objections is a belief that the wind industry is harvesting for profit an indigenous resource that, with some legal reforms and innovations, should instead be in community ownership. It is also difficult to enthuse people with a zero-carbon technology if it is perceived to primarily offset the harmful emissions of large energy users such as data centres. Unsurprisingly, demands for a publicly owned energy system reminiscent of the early days of the ESB have begun to resurface. This reflects a sense of alienation from renewable technologies that once inspired visions of a democratic and locally owned energy system.
There are of course significant technical and economic challenges to going 100 per cent renewable electricity, and wind energy is not completely environmentally benign. But if we don’t seize this opportunity to throw everything at this moon shot in the midst of an unprecedented energy and climate crisis, we would be foolish indeed.
Sadhbh O’Neill is a researcher in climate policy and politics