It’s official: Ireland has the third highest emissions of greenhouse gases in the EU per capita. Yes, that’s us. Climate change may seem like a far-off concept to many of us living in the Emerald Isle, but we are actually key contributors to it. While we’ve made so many positive steps forward in the past few years with social issues, such as the marriage referendum; our performance on this global crisis is more than disappointing.
What’s even more disappointing is that we have a far greater potential to decarbonise than many other countries in Europe. Our wind speeds are the envy of our fellow European nations. Yet, are we harnessing this vast amount of natural resource? Of course not. We’d rather continue the messy business of extracting gas from the Corrib field and importing millions of euros worth of oil and gas. In fact, what’s even worse is that we’re the only country in Europe which has an Atlantic coastline with NO offshore wind platforms in place.
Why does Ireland have such a high potential for wind energy generation? Well, the maritime area Ireland has jurisdiction over encompasses 900,000 km2, while our land area is only a fraction of that at around 90,000 km2. Much of this area reaches out beyond the continental shelf off the west coast of Ireland and deep into the Atlantic Ocean. As you can imagine, wind speeds out in the vast Atlantic can be incredibly high – much higher than in the Irish Sea or on land. We are one of the most westerly countries in Europe and get the full force of the Atlantic Ocean hitting our west coast. By the time the wind reaches us and then moves on, a lot of the momentum is lost and so more easterly countries in Europe such as France and Italy do not experience winds as strong as we do. In figure 1, it can be clearly seen that Ireland has an extremely high potential for wind energy. The only 2 countries to match our potential are the UK and Denmark. So, how are they doing on developing offshore wind energy?
Figure 1: number of full-load hours of turbines in Europe. Source: Held, A. (2011). Modelling the future development of renewable energy technologies in the European electricity sector using agent-based simulation.
Denmark is a leader in wind energy production; not just in Europe, but in the world. In 2016, 43% of their electricity was generated from wind turbines and their new government has announced the ambitious goal of achieving a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, of which wind energy will play a significant role. In terms of wind energy capacity, there are currently 500 offshore wind turbines in place and 4000 onshore turbines which generate a total of 6GW of energy annually. The UK installed 1,312 MW of offshore wind energy in 2018 bringing their total installed capacity for offshore wind to 8,217 MW and total capacity to 20,970 MW. This contributed 18% to the UK’s electricity generation in 2018. By comparison, Ireland has just seven turbines or 25MW of offshore wind capacity installed and a total capacity of 3,500 MW. Measly in contrast to the UK and Denmark. However, this accounted for 28% of our electricity supply in 2018. If we can generate that much electricity with so few turbines, the vast majority of which are onshore, imagine what we could generate with offshore wind farms.
Harnessing wind energy is one of the most attractive strategies to mitigate against climate change in Europe. Why? Because it works. The cost of wind turbines has rapidly decreased in the last decade, and the technologies are continuously improving. It is now possible to have floating wind turbines which can be placed hundreds of kilometres offshore. Thus, they are not visually disruptive, are less likely to cause issues with ports and shipping and will almost certainly generate larger amounts of electricity due to the greater wind speeds experienced offshore. Furthermore, it is now possible to store excess energy generated by the wind turbines as hydrogen. This means that even when wind speeds are low, the energy is still available to be used. This is a game changer for the wind industry.
So, what is holding us up? Legislation mainly. From inception to online, the journey in creating a windfarm takes approximately 12 years. 12 YEARS. The exact amount of time we have to effect drastic climate change mitigation strategies in order to keep warming to a minimum of 1.5°C according to the UN report last October. We urgently need to act or we may as well not act at all.
However, there is a ray of hope. The ‘derisking offshore wind energy development potential in Irish waters’, or DOWindy, project was announced this week. This project is intended to survey the coast of Ireland for potential wind farm sites, collecting data which will be used by the Eirwind team of MaRei, hopefully encouraging investment in the renewable energy sector. Furthermore, there are plans to construct an offshore wind turbine off the coast of Belmullet, Co. Mayo to be used as a test for further offshore wind projects.
Offshore wind energy could free Ireland from the chains of fossil fuel dependence. It would also show the rest of the world we are serious about tackling climate change, something for which we are infamous.
To paraphrase Greta Thunberg: The house is on fire, let’s start acting like it.