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Fintan O’Toole: The EU has a vast untapped energy resource – Ireland

We can enhance the safety of Europe by exporting clean, renewable energy to it

What can Ireland do to enhance the security of the European Union in these troubled times? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

Russia’s barbaric assault on Ukraine has prompted an examination of conscience. It is not unreasonable to feel uncomfortable about Ireland’s position as a free rider on other countries’ defence spending.

As in the story of the three little pigs, we have built our house of straw. When the big bad wolf (or the big bad bear) comes knocking on the door, we run for safety to someone else’s house of bricks.

There is little doubt that Ireland does have to take defence much more seriously. Given that we don’t take it seriously at all, this should not be hard.

For a start, we need to build an actual navy rather than what we so cutely call a Naval Service. Vladimir Putin helpfully reminded us of this in January when he sent a Russian fleet to manoeuvre off the south coast.

This month alone, Russia will rake in an extra €8.8 billion because of steeply rising carbon energy prices. Putin turns that oil into blood

But we are not Finland or Sweden. Those countries are getting close to abandoning their military neutrality and joining Nato, yet their realities are not ours.

Ireland does not, like the Finns, have a 1,300km border with Russia. We do not, like the Swedes, share the Baltic with a hostile and increasingly unpredictable naval power. Our most effective defence strategy is our decision to inhabit an island very far from the main source of military aggression in Europe.

We can, nonetheless, make a huge contribution to European security. It’s not about guns or tanks or warplanes. It’s about energy.

Putin is a little man inflated to monstrous size by a constant infusion of natural gas. Even now, his war on Ukraine is being fuelled by western Europe’s need to buy Russian gas and oil.

This month alone, Russia will rake in an extra €8.8 billion because of steeply rising carbon energy prices. Putin turns that oil into blood.

Because of the climate emergency, the EU already needed to wean itself off carbon fuels. Putin has made this imperative even more urgent.

As it happens, the EU has a vast untapped energy resource. It’s called Ireland. Our maritime territory of more than 420,000sq km has the best wind speeds for offshore energy generation in the whole of the EU.

It is now obvious that the great European economic project of the next decade will be independence in the production of energy. This will be about harnessing wind and solar power, but also about turning that intermittent energy into hydrogen, so that it can be stored.

This places Ireland in a position it has never occupied before. It can be right at the forefront of a new industrial revolution. And, in doing so, it can genuinely enhance the safety and security of Europe by becoming a significant exporter to the continent of clean and renewable energy.

Helping to replace Putin's natural gas with green hydrogen is by far the best thing we can do for the security of the EU

Ireland could produce 80 gigawatts of power annually from offshore wind. That’s the equivalent of about 170 million barrels of oil. It could also become a world leader in hydrogen technology.

But first, we have to change our mindset.

Just last week, the Government published an important document on Ireland’s trade policy. In his foreword, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar contrasted Ireland to other countries that “owe their relative wealth and prosperity to their natural resources”. We, on the other hand, “owe our relative prosperity to our land and our people”.

You will search that document in vain for any mention of the sea, the ocean, the Atlantic. There is one glancing reference to offshore wind: “areas like offshore wind; cutting-edge agriculture; and retrofitting”.

In fairness, Taoiseach Micheál Martin did make a good speech in Galway on Thursday about the “vast potential and opportunities” for renewable energy development off our Atlantic coasts.

The problem is that there is little connection between this awareness and either trade policy or practical governance. As Kevin O’Sullivan pointed out in The Irish Times last week, it takes 24 weeks to get a foreshore licence to survey a potential site in the UK but 24 months in Ireland.

“Planning delays; worries about the electricity grid’s ability to take on vastly increased loads and to store power; high renewable energy prices in Ireland; and uncertainties on policy and timelines are unnerving investors.”

Some of this may be down to the apparently in-built slowness of Irish governance systems in general. But there is surely also a deeper problem of attitude. We have spent so long telling ourselves that we have no natural resources that we find it hard to grasp that we could, within a decade, become a serious exporter of energy.

If we can do that, we can also make a real contribution to the protection of European democracy. Helping to replace Putin’s natural gas with green hydrogen is by far the best thing we can do for the security of the EU.

What our friends on the continent need from us is not the hot air of a futile debate about joining Nato. It is the rapid harnessing of the cold air that sweeps across the western ocean. Only in this way can a very ill wind for the people of Ukraine blow some good.