Ireland’s energy transition and rollout of large-scale offshore wind must be seen as “a shared societal project, rather than a developer-led project”, the environmentalist Oisín Coghlan has warned.
Offering practical advice to those supporting necessary development of offshore renewable energy, the director of Friends of the Earth said the absence of public engagement – including public participation and public ownership – meant building infrastructure risked being more difficult for the State and for developers.
There were the useful lessons from onshore wind development and the controversial Corrib Gas project that needed to be taken on board, he told a webinar hosted by Green MEP for Dublin Ciarán Cuffe on harnessing Ireland's and the EU's offshore energy.
Surprising opposition had arisen, he recalled; “feeling powerless; being put upon, doing things to their environment without their consent” were common reactions.
With offshore wind there was a need for energy democracy, good planning and shared ownership – and efforts needed to be made to avoid it becoming “a lightning rod for public anxiousness” in other areas, he suggested.
Currently this was being reflected in public course on the huge power demands of data centres, and attitudes suggesting this “isn’t for us, isn’t for a better society” but for the benefit of multinationals instead.
Rapid rollout of offshore wind energy will be contentious, particularly off the east coast, because large turbines will be so visible on the horizon; "we should be upfront on visual effects", Minister for the Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan said.
But this had to be put in the context of the benefits in levels of renewable energy that would be generated and in meeting Ireland’s climate ambitions, he added.
“Offshore wind at scale” opened up the opportunity to generate seven times more than current Irish electricity generation, he said. Some 5 gigawatts (GW) was planned for by 2030, with 30GW over following decades as more floating turbines are installed in deeper waters further out to sea.
Technical advancements and reduced costs meant these targets could prove to be conservative, and may be achieved quicker in line with accelerated climate action, he said.
The key facilitating mechanism would be the forthcoming Maritime Area Planning Bill, which would integrate all offshore planning including fisheries, establishing marine protected areas and aquaculture.
“It’s absolutely critical that we put good environmental planning practice central to everything we do,” Mr Ryan added.
As turbines were getting larger they were more noticeable on the horizon, but their size meant fewer of them were required. He believed with the right approach they could protect sea birds and marine habitats.
An enhanced grid interconnected to Europe was essential, with co-operation with the UK, regardless of Brexit, he said. "It will not work if we go it alone."
Eddie O'Connor of Mainstream Renewable Power said Ireland in the short term was about to get "free power" from the Irish Sea, and in the long term would exploit its competitive advantage from offshore wind by supplying Europe with green power.
But the consent and licensing system had to be got right and an adequate grid put in place. The issue of “gird congestion” in Dublin had to addressed as the problem could “derail the green agenda”, which the Government has committed to, and could limit Irish Sea output to just 1.5 GW.
As a consequence, Mr O'Connor said, the eastern region lacked the ability to cater for new data centres and the Dublin Bus green electricity fleet could not be repowered.
“We can’t commit to 100 per cent green transport until we install a high-density, fast-charging, easily-accessible charging system – until the grid question is solved”.
More broadly, there was a need for acceptance that in Ireland’s energy transition either cables had to be buried in the ground or existing overhead lines had to be replaced with bigger conductors to allow for greater power transmission.
Deployment of superconductivity technology would be ideally suited for the city, as it left a tiny footprint with next to no power losses, he said.
At European level a supergrid was required to cater for wind energy generated in large quantities in northern Europe and solar energy from the Mediterranean, which would also allow large-scale production of green hydrogen and ammonia to happen.
As burning gas produces large qualities of CO2, he urged caution with the gas lobby extolling the virtues of “blue hydrogen”, which is produced from natural gas combined with carbon-capture technology.
Ireland was in danger of not meeting its own targets for offshore wind installations unless there was greater ambition and co-ordination from all Government departments, Mr Cuffe said.
“Ocean energy is necessary if we are to reach our goals under the European green deal. In Ireland we need joined-up thinking to both protect our habitats and fishing grounds, as well as meet our offshore targets for renewable electricity produced at sea.”
Peter Le Froy of RWE Renewables said Ireland was currently a small offshore player and would be left behind if it did not act quickly. This would mean slower delivery of projects and increased costs, which was in nobody's interest. It was essential that only developers with competence be awarded consents for offshore wind farms, rather than speculators.
Environmental lawyer Alice Whittaker of Philip Lee Solicitors warned that judges see marine legislation as "an untidy patchwork" that was almost impenetrable to the public, and may not be compliant with the Aarhus Directive. The new Bill risked the same fate, she added, so the Government needed to get outside expertise to ensure it was right.
This was critical to ensuring plan-led development with a flexible design approach that was also in accordance with EU law, she said.