Flooded valleys key to huge power plan


PLANS TO build a new electricity generating system, combining large-scale wind farms with huge hydro-power storage reservoirs in valleys on the west coast, are at an advanced stage, The Irish Timeshas learned.

“Spirit of Ireland”, billed as a national project for energy independence, has been under discussion for several months with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, as well as other agencies.

It would involve identifying up to five coastal valleys from counties Donegal to Cork, building dams on their seaward side and flooding them with sea water. These would provide a hydro-power back-up for the wind farms.

Typically, wind farms only produce 25 to 35 per cent of their maximum possible electricity output. The proposed hydro-generating stations would come into play when wind speeds were either too low or too high to be useful.

Each of the reservoirs would be about 100 times the size of Turlough Hill, Co Wicklow, where the peak was levelled in the early 1970s to create an artificial oval reservoir that can store 1,800 megawatt hours of hydro energy.

“There is tremendous political goodwill right across the board,” according to Dr Graham O’Donnell, the electrical engineer and entrepreneur who is co-ordinating work on the project by up to 150 professionals – all volunteers.

“Nobody is playing politics with it, because everyone can see the advantage of the project,” he said. “The first power station we envisage would supply a quarter of the electricity Ireland needs and we could also be exporting to the UK.

“To meet our national electricity requirements, we would need two hydro-storage reservoirs with a size of around 4km by 4km.

“Constructing a further three plants would earn very large incomes from export of natural energy.

“It’s an enormous project, a very exciting project for the country, and it’s making extremely strong progress. We look forward to concluding our discussions with the Government [principally Minister Eamon Ryan] within the next few weeks,” he said.

A final report, including likely locations and detailed costings, is now being compiled for presentation to Mr Ryan and his department.

“Everyone is aware of the project, including the Taoiseach, but there is a process to go through,” Dr O’Donnell explained.

Fifty potential sites along the west coast were identified, but he said many of these were not suitable for environmental or geological reasons. “We’ve now reduced the number of sites to 10, of which five will be studied in micro-detail,” he added.

The bowl-shaped valleys, created during the Ice Age, are located in areas with some of the best wind conditions in Ireland.

“Many are in areas of low population density, where land is of marginal or no use for farming,”the project’s website says.

It notes that a successful plant similar to the project being planned here has been in operation on the Japanese island of Okinawa for more than 10 years – “built in more difficult terrain than the glacial valleys on Ireland’s west coast”.

Dr O’Donnell said he was not in a position at this stage to reveal which were the most likely locations. “There’s an enormous amount of geological investigation and mapping involved, and we have a total of 18 teams of people working on the project.”

There was also “serious interest” in the project among financial institutions abroad.

“It’s an ideal vehicle for attracting foreign direct investment into Ireland, on a par with Intel, and it would create thousands of jobs.”

Other selling points are that it would achieve energy independence in five years, save €30 billion on the import of fossil fuels, slash carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and “create the potential to add €50 billion to our economy”.

This would arise from the value of the project itself and its potential to export electricity to Britain. Such is the scale of “Spirit of Ireland” that several interconnectors would be needed to supplement the one being planned.