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Column: Renewable power can save the environment… and our economy

Ireland’s weather is an incredible resource – and learning to use it could be the key to our future, writes Pat McGill.

Image: Xu congjun nt/AP/Press Association Images

MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE that renewable energy is a new phenomenon in Ireland. However, water powered grain mills were in use in Ireland circa 200 AD and it was Irish monks living at Strangford Lough who are credited with inventing the tidal powered grain mill in the seventh century. In the 1880s, Killarney was the second urban area in the world to boast electric streetlights, beating such cities as London and New York to this innovation with electricity was generated by hydro turbines installed at Flesk Mills just outside the town .

In 1925 the Irish government committed 20 per cent of its entire budget to building the Ardnacrusha hydro power station on the Shannon. When completed in 1929, Ardnacrusha was capable of meeting 100 per cent of Ireland’s electricity demand. Ardnacrusha was also the largest hydro electric scheme in the world, retaining this honour until the Hoover Dam was completed in 1934. The ESB was created in 1927 to build and manage both the Ardnacrusha plant and the national power grid to supply the country with electricity. Ardnacrusha is still in daily service 82 years later.

The solid foundations of the ESB were therefore built on Ireland’s renewable energy resources.

Ireland has impressive renewable energy resources, per capita we have the largest wind and wave energy resources in Europe and we are now learning how to harvest them. Ireland already provides 11 per cent of its annual electricity needs (2010) from wind and government policy is that by 2020 we will provide 40 per cent of our electricity from wind energy. The EU further requires that CO2 emissions must be substantially reduced by 2020 in member states.

Targets are easy to set, but it’s a little harder to achieve them.

Ireland has in excess of 1600 MW of wind generation connected to the grid, with another 3900 MW in the Gate 3 process waiting for connection offers, and a further 4000 MW of wind projects waiting to join the queue, so in theory we should easily meet our targets. But when we look behind these headline figures we find a few problems.

Wind turbines do not have any emissions, but the wind is intermittent, and at the beginning of the noughties Ireland decided to build low cost, but very inefficient and expensive to run open cycle gas turbines to provide a back up for the windfarms being built. Back then gas was cheap, now it is expensive. These OCGT plants also mean that most of the CO2 savings arising from windfarms are wiped out. So our 2020 emission targets are unlikely to be met under present policy.

Problems

The 3900 MW of new wind capacity in the Gate 3 process is not as clear-cut as it seems either. Many of these projects have already been refused planning permission, more are unlikely to achieve planning as they are situated within designated Natura 2000 areas and some of the remaining projects will find it hard to achieve funding. Meanwhile there are many projects which have already achieved planning and have financing in place which are not in the connection queue because the rules of the Gate process prevent them from joining that queue for years to come. This has created a speculative market in State-issued consents, and also means that our 40 per cent target is unlikely to be met under current conditions.

We also have the problem that we currently import over 85 per cent of our energy needs. On October 1 the cost of heating and lighting our homes and businesses went up by an average of 20 per cent because of the dramatic increase in the international wholesale price of natural gas.

Does it matter if these targets are not met ? What measures need to be taken if it does matter ? Should we reduce our dependence on energy imports, Do we need thousands of new jobs which are securely anchored by our natural resources ?

Costed at todays prices, in excess of €100 billion worth of potential energy crashes against our coastline or blows across Ireland every year. This energy does not have a fuel cost and so can be price stable over decades. The socio-economic rewards from effectively harvesting even 10 per cent of this energy would be a game-changer for our economy and create an entirely new industrial sector creating thousands of jobs. If we go one step further and encourage community energy co-ops to participate, a large part of our future pension requirements are also securely funded.

Reducing the number and increasing the size of our windfarms and placing these larger windfarms in appropriate locations will enable large cost reductions, substantially reduce the environmental impact and attract turbine and cleantech manufacturers to locate here. Our wave resources have already attracted R&D activity, with the majority of the most promising wave technologies being of Irish origin with one Irish company in particular showing a realistic prospect of bringing cost competitive wave generated electricity ashore by 2016. It is on such innovation that Denmark and Germany built wind turbine manufacturing into industries employing tens of thousands. We can do likewise with wave energy technologies.

The way forward

The Turlough Hill pumped hydro plant in Wicklow was built in the 1970s to serve a planned nuclear plant which was later abandoned. But it is pumped hydro plants such as this which can turn our abundant, fuel-free, but intermittant renewables into a stable form of energy supply – using wind and wave energy to pump water from a lower reservoir to a higher reservoir enables us to store energy and generate electricity whenever it is required simply by allowing the water to flow back downhill through hydro turbine’s, in effect this creates a natural energy power station generating emission free, price stable and dependable electricity.

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This also means that most of the gas-guzzling OCGT plants currently planned are no longer necessary and our EU 2020 emissions targets can be easily met. In addition building these pumped hydro facilities will create thousands of construction jobs over the next decade.

The key to attracting the finance required to accomplish the above and also preserving the employment and capital invested in our present energy industry is to initially export a large proportion of our dependable and cost competitive renewable energy. Our nearest neighbours in Britain have a looming crisis in electricity generation as over 30 per cent of their power plants must retire over the next few years because of age and more stringent environmental standards. Britain is no longer self sufficient in coal or gas. This means that Britain must invest over £200billion over the next decade and the British government estimate that from 2018 onwards as much as 20 per cent of Britains electricity will be imported. This subject was at the top of the agenda at the most recent British Irish Council meeting.

Moneypoint power station will need to be replaced or have major renovations by 2025. If it were replaced by two co-located 500 MW thorium cycle or travelling wave nuclear plant,s in addition to our new natural energy power stations described above, Ireland could be self sufficient in price stable electricity for decades and be the most cost competitive economy in Europe.

Perhaps our economic health is within our own hands after all.

Pat Gill is a technologist, writer and a member of the Spirit of Ireland energy project.

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