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Ireland has to move quickly if we are to become the Saudi Arabia of wind energy

Time is ticking. By 2030, Ireland’s Climate Action Plan has committed to generating 80% of electricity through renewable sources.

Currently, it produces about 80% through fossil fuels. Eirgrid’s most recent figures for this week show coal generating 15.5%; gas generating 73.8% and renewables generating just 4.6%.

Amber alerts on Ireland’s electricity grid this summer jolted many to the cold realities of potential energy blackouts this winter.

The war in Ukraine has cast a glaring light on Ireland’s — and Europe’s energy insecurity.

Data centres — a growing part of Ireland’s economy — have also been under the spotlight for draining the national grid of energy at a time of scarcity.

But offshore floating wind power means energy scarcity does not need to feature in Ireland’s energy lexicon in the future, Dr Val Cummins, director of Simply Blue Group and former marine scientist and academic, said.

Sometimes dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy”, Ireland could both secure its own energy supply and become a major exporter of wind-derived energy and technology while boosting and protecting marine environments for the benefit of both biodiversity and the fishing industry, Dr Cummins said. Floating wind power is a win-win for everyone, she said.

The opportunities are great, but so is the responsibility to implement speedier while still robust processes for bringing renewable energy sources on stream.

“Now is our moment,” Dr Cummins said.

“We were inward-looking as an island. We had our back to the sea — until now. Now that’s changing.

The biggest opportunity we have to increase our renewable energy output of all the technologies — whether it’s offshore wind, solar, biomass or onshore wind — is floating offshore wind. That’s an enormous opportunity for this country.

“We have such an incredible maritime area as a small island nation. Our marine area is seven times our landmass.

“Floating wind technology can be deployed off the south coast and off the west coast where the continental shelf lends itself really, really well to an opportunity to get up to and beyond 30GW of floating offshore wind [30 gigawatts would power about 30m homes she said], which is in the Programme for Government.

“It’s key to get us to net zero [carbon emissions] by 2050 but it’s also an opportunity not just to be self-sufficient in terms of our own energy demand, but also to supply energy to Europe and elsewhere.” 

An academic in University College Cork for 20 years, Dr Cummins moved to industry two years ago and is now director at Simply Blue Group, a marine resource company which aims to operate some of Ireland’s first floating offshore wind farms.

The biggest opportunity we have to increase our renewable energy output of all the technologies — whether it’s offshore wind, solar, biomass or onshore wind — is floating offshore wind. That’s an enormous opportunity for this country.

Floating wind as a technology can unlock Ireland’s potential as a renewable energy producer, she believes.

Unlike the more common fixed-bottom offshore wind farms, floating wind turbines are anchored to the seabed rather than being pile-driven into it, lessening its environmental impact.

They can operate in deeper water so can be deployed off Ireland’s wind-rich west and south coasts, which will be a game-changer for Ireland’s wind-power generation, Dr Cummins said.

And because they can operate in deeper water, further from the coast, they are invisible or barely visible out on the horizon line so should spark fewer complaints from people worried about visual impact.

Two offshore floating wind projects which would be Ireland’s first are planned by Simply Blue Group, one for Cork and one for Clare.

The Cork offshore wind farm, called the Emerald Project, would produce 1.3GW of energy and cost some €2bn, with an additional €100m in planning costs.

Currently, some 28GW of floating wind opportunities are being explored by developers in Ireland.

Outdated laws and regulations coupled with chronic understaffing in regulatory bodies have been holding up projects.

But a new body, the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (Mara) is due to be set up from January, giving the industry hope that projects will be faster to progress from next year.

One of this new State agency’s major functions will be to regulate and issue a new type of licence called a Maritime Area Consent (Mac), which are effectively seabed leases. This lease will allow a specified area of the seabed to be used for a specified purpose — like wind turbines — with terms and conditions and a payment levy attached. 

It replaces foreshore licences previously issued under the old Foreshore Act. A Mac is needed before a wind energy company can begin proper feasibility studies on a site and before it can apply for planning permission from An Bord Pleanála.

Mara will also issue foreshore licences from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Mara was established under legislation enacted in December 2021. The Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 was heralded by Government as “the biggest reform of marine governance since the foundation of the state”. 

The act provides the legal and administrative underpinning for a new planning regime in the maritime area, facilitating the development of offshore energy.

Adequately resourcing Mara is crucial so Macs can be issued efficiently from early 2023, Dr Cummins said.

Better resourcing An Bord Pleanála is also key so that vital infrastructure projects like wind farms can begin to be built.

Data centres — a growing part of Ireland’s economy — have also been under the spotlight for draining the national grid of energy at a time of scarcity.
Data centres — a growing part of Ireland’s economy — have also been under the spotlight for draining the national grid of energy at a time of scarcity.

An offshore floating wind farm takes about 10 years and billions of euro to bring on stream, so avoiding unnecessary delays is crucial if Ireland is to hit its offshore wind targets — by 2030, Ireland’s Climate Action Plan commits to developing 5GW of offshore wind energy.

Getting Ireland to its net-zero carbon goal by 2050 will require wind power plants generating 25GW of electricity.

The current Programme for Government has set targets of 30GW of floating offshore wind from 2030. 

The European Commission aims to increase Europe’s offshore wind capacity from its current level of 12gw to 300gw by 2050.

1GW can power about 1m homes. Moneypoint power station produces less than 1GW for comparison.

And change is possible. Data from the US Energy Administration identifies seven countries at or very nearly 100% renewable power — Iceland, (100 percent), Paraguay (100), Costa Rica (99), Norway (98.5), Austria (80), Brazil (75), and Denmark (69.4).

Ireland, by contrast is still overwhelmingly reliant on fossil duels.

“It’s going in the right direction but it’s the speed of it, in the context of the urgency in which we need to see the change delivered,” Dr Cummins said.

“Over the last two years in particular, Government has really been proactive in putting a robust national marine planning framework in place. We didn’t have that surprisingly until now, even though we are an island nation, we were relying on very outdated legislation for planning for the foreshore.

“Whereas now, we have a whole new raft of legislation, that’s a very important part of the jigsaw. But we need to keep that acceleration, keep that pressure on in terms of the next pieces of the jigsaw that need to be put together.

“Government needs a roadmap for how to use this resource. Knowing we have an ambition for 30GW and more, what’s the roadmap for industry and civil society and Government working together to drive that forward?” 

Offshore wind has raised concerns amongst some fishers, concerned wind farms may spring up in their most fertile fishing grounds and therefore limit their access to fish stock.

Conservationists have been concerned about offshore wind’s impact on migrating birds and marine life.

Calls have been made for Government to speed up allocation of protected marine conservation areas, where marine life can thrive without human interference, before the seabed is carved up by wind energy companies.

But Dr Cummins said offshore wind companies can and must work in tandem with all stakeholders to create positive outcomes for the marine environment and for the people who depend on it for a living.

“We have an opportunity to work together. That’s hugely important — coexistence with the fishers but also coexistence with other key stakeholders, key interests, including and importantly NGOs, who are really, and rightly concerned with the designation of areas offshore as marine protected areas of conservation.

There’s a wonderful opportunity for floating windfarms offshore to become de facto marine conservation areas. If they’re ‘no-take’ zones for fishing then they’re biological hotspots.

“Offshore floating wind can be part of an integrated solution to enhancing marine conservation and helping to create healthier oceans as well as renewable energy contributing to decarbonisation and reaching climate targets,” Dr Cummins said.

Fishers noticed the sea teaming with life around the gas field off Kinsale when the project was decommissioned, she said.

Offshore wind has raised concerns amongst some fishers, concerned wind farms may spring up in their most fertile fishing grounds and therefore limit their access to fish stock.
Offshore wind has raised concerns amongst some fishers, concerned wind farms may spring up in their most fertile fishing grounds and therefore limit their access to fish stock.

And floating offshore wind can work in synergy with other marine stakeholders — allowing marine life a safe space to grow, ultimately boosting catch for fishers who face increasingly empty nets, she said.

Floating offshore wind has already been deployed around Europe and the onus is now on Ireland to catch up, Dr Cummins said.

Floating offshore wind farms are already used off the northeast coast of the England, off the coast of Aberdeen in Scotland, off Portugal and Norway.

“The latest project to come on stream is off Norway, where there’s a floating wind farm being developed by Equinor to power an offshore oil or gas production platform,” Dr Cummins said.

“And the next project to come after that will be ours, Simply Blue Group, which will be in the Celtic Sea off the coast of Pembroke. It’s a project we’ve been developing with Total Energies. It will produce 96MW floating wind that should be operational by 2026.

“Wind Europe estimates that there will be 7GW of floating wind in deployment in Europe alone by 2030. So it’s a sector that’s really accelerating. Lots of European countries have really embraced it and declared ambitious targets for deployment.” 

Along with England, Scotland, Portugal and Norway, Spain, France, Sweden and Italy, are also working to develop floating offshore wind.

“That’s great. But they don’t have the extent of the resource we have. We have the Wild Atlantic Way — it’s not called that for nothing. In technical jargon, it has a good capacity factor,” Dr Cummins said.

So we have the marine space, we have fantastic wind. We need to really ramp up and build on work done by Government in the last couple of years and show commitment in terms of the road map for floating wind.” 

The Programme for Government originally committed to 5GW of installed offshore wind capacity by 2030, which was recently augmented by another 2GW, bringing the target to 7GW by 2030. It also aimed to produce a long-term plan to take advantage of a potential of at least 30GW of floating wind thereafter.

IGW can power roughly 1m homes, Dr Cummins said.

For comparison, Moneypoint power station generates 915 MW, so less than 1GW.

“I was 21 years with UCC before moving to Simply Blue Group two years ago. My whole career was in marine science and marine resource management. When I crossed over to industry I was really motivated by the opportunity to have an impact in relation to being really smart about utilisation of our ocean resource. 

I always felt we could be doing so much more as a maritime nation, but really in terms of the climate change piece, really seeing the opportunities of floating offshore wind, to be a massive contributor to getting to net zero.

“But also since I joined Simply Blue it’s been about what needs to happen now to help with energy security issues, which have become really, really intensified over the last six months. 

“And back to that piece around marine conservation, and thinking about protecting the oceans but having these turbines out there like sentinels of the sea. It’s a whole new way of looking at things, it’s exciting, it’s the future.

“This Programme for Government put down an ambition for producing at least 30GW — that’s 30m homes.

“But just a few weeks ago Minister Ryan announced the first big step, which is to do 2GW floating wind — you have to walk before you can run — which would be used for the production of green hydrogen.” 

Sometimes dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy”, Ireland could both secure its own energy supply and become a major exporter of wind-derived energy and technology while boosting and protecting marine environments for the benefit of both biodiversity and the fishing industry, Dr Cummins said.
Sometimes dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy”, Ireland could both secure its own energy supply and become a major exporter of wind-derived energy and technology while boosting and protecting marine environments for the benefit of both biodiversity and the fishing industry, Dr Cummins said.

When you talk about floating offshore wind you very quickly get to the subject of green hydrogen, she said.

“Because with the opportunity to do 30GW offshore, you have to ask where that electricity is going to go?

“And certainly there’s a great opportunity to feed it into the grid here, displacing sources like Moneypoint, but also that electricity can be sent directly to your interconnector in terms of exporting electrons. 

“Or we could export gas — so using electricity from the offshore floating wind farms to power a process onshore of electrolysis which basically splits water into hydrogen and oxygen and when you do that you get green hydrogen.

“Green hydrogen becomes a fundamental component of e-fuel production.

“And where you have your hydrogen, if you take nitrogen out of the atmosphere, which is regularly available, and you put them together, you can produce green ammonia.

“Green ammonia is used in fertiliser and Ireland has huge demand for that in terms of farming. And the global demand for green ammonia is absolutely huge.

“But it can also be used as a fuel — and e-fuel — for shipping. Ships can be adapted to run on green ammonia and again, these are the enormous opportunities that Ireland has.

“When I go back to my roadmap for offshore floating wind, we have made a baby step in relation to the announcement of 2Ggw to produce green hydrogen but that’s a fundamental first step — because it will show that we can do it, it will be proof of concept. Then, we can build on that. And that then becomes a game changer, not just for decarbonisation and energy security and the marine environment but also for regional development. Because a lot of this will happen, for example off the west coast.”

Floating offshore wind, therefore, creates huge opportunities for the regeneration of rural, coastal Ireland.

We have an opportunity for a whole new economic sector in rural, coastal Ireland which will breathe life back into communities which are really feeling the pain of the demise of, for example, the fishing sector. 

“So it is such an exciting story because it hits economy, it hits environment, it hits society, it’s just there for the taking. 

“I think there’s a fantastic sense of the opportunity across the board. I think Government sees it and realises it. 

“The challenge is that we don’t have enough capacity in key Government departments and agencies to move on this fast enough. And that’s what we need to see — we need to see more bandwidth in the likes of Mara, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, in An Bord Pleanála, and all of these key instruments of the State that need to work together to put the framework in place for us to do this at scale. 

“Because the opportunity is one of incredible scale. 30GW is there as a number. We will need most of that to decarbonise ourselves to get to 2050. Some analysis will say there’s 50GW off the south coast and 80GW off the west coast. It is huge in terms of opportunity and the opportunity Ireland has is unique. We can develop this at a scale that other countries will never be able to do. 

“But we need to be early movers. We need to ensure we’re getting access to the supply chain and developing the supply chain for ourselves. And the more that we stay at the current pace, the increased risk is that other countries will storm ahead and we’ll be left behind.

“So we need to action this now. Now is our moment.”

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