Wind energy continues to break records as its contribution to Ireland’s energy supply increases. CIAN MOLLOY reports.

During our school days, those of us of a certain age were told that Ireland was an island of few energy resources, but it turns out our teachers were wrong. Of course, we don’t have an abundance of fossil fuels but, better than that, we have an abundance of renewable energy that is ripe for exploitation. Situated on Europe’s Atlantic edge, we are perfectly placed to generate electricity using wind-power and increasingly we are doing just that and harnessing the potential of what God, or accidental circumstance, has given us.

The beginning of the year saw yet another milestone for the Irish wind energy sector with a new record being set for the total amount of electricity generated on this island by wind power – 2,815MW. During most of the time period in question, wind generation accounted for 60 per cent of electricity usage on the island. Indeed, renewable energy, primarily wind power, at present accounts for between 20 and 60 per cent of the electricity on the Eirgrid transmission network depending weather and other conditions. Indeed, with 3,169MW of installed wind capacity in Ireland, there is the capacity for 55 percent of Irish electricity to be produced from wind. Overall, some €200 million is saved in avoided fuel imports each year as a result.

There is the capacity for 55% of Irish electricity to be produced from wind

Anyone curious to see what proportion of electricity is currently being produced by renewable energy can check out ‘Fuel Mix’ on this webpage: http://www.eirgrid.ie/how-the-grid-works/system-information/

Of course, there are times when the wind doesn’t blow very strongly, but on average wind power formed about 21 per cent of the total electricity demand on the island of Ireland last year. This average figure for 2016 is provisional based on wind generation dispatched by Eirgrid on the high-voltage transmission network; a more precise figure that includes wind generated power dispatched by ESB Networks on the lower-voltage distribution network will be published by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) in the near future.

But one thing is clear – wind energy is now our primary source of renewable energy, having overtaken hydro power in 2005. Last year (and every year for more than two decades), hydro has had the capacity to provide the transmission system with 212MW of power, but wind has just under six times that amount with a transmission system capacity of 1,271MW.

Looking at connections to the distribution system, which include Ireland’s first commercial wind farm Bellacorrick in Co Mayo which has been live since 1992, ESB Networks reckon that the total installed capacity as of December 1st last year was 1,493MW. However, though these distribution system connections comprised 174 wind farm developments only 132 were exporting electricity, 42 of them were ‘energised’ but still awaiting final permissions, and infrastructure investments, to begin exporting electricity in to the all-island electricity market. Once these 42, and others still in development, come on stream wind power’s share will increase still further.

Ireland is committed to an EU target of meeting 16% of its total energy demand from renewable energy by 2020

“Ireland is committed to an EU target of meeting 16% of its total energy demand from renewable energy by 2020 and the greatest share of this target will be met in the electricity sector, with 40% of electricity demand being met from renewable sources,” says Brendan Heneghan of the Irish Wind Energy Association. “Wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy for the Irish climate and wind will play a crucial role in meeting not just our 2020 target other targets such as the EU decarbonisation target for 2050.”

However, there is an anti-wind lobby that is growing in strength, with organisations such as the European Platform Against Windfarms working to support local opposition to wind farm developments. Indeed, in the SEAI’s report to the International Energy Agency last year, among the issues affecting growth of the wind sector were: increased community and political disquiet about wind farm developments and increasing numbers of judicial reviews of the planning appeal board’s decisions in favour of wind farm planning applications. The planning permission issue doesn’t just affect wind farms, says Heneghan. “It has got harder to get planning permission for any major new development whether it is a new Apple data centre in Athenry of a new town by-pass. The whole planning process needs reform.”

The reference to data centres is an interesting one – there is strong evidence that multinationals are choosing Ireland as a location for data centres not just because our temperate climate means that less energy is required to keep these centres running efficiently. Large multinationals are looking for low carbon energy supplies to power their facilities, so wind power can play a role in bringing FDI firms into the country.

As far as rolling out new windfarms goes, Heneghan says, a major positive development is that Eirgrid and ESB Networks are getting much better at integrating wind power, with its fluctuating supply, into the national grid. At present, Eirgrid is rolling out its DS3 programme, so named because it is designed to deliver a ‘secure, sustainable electricity system’, which essentially means that the national grid will be a smart network capable of handling increasing amounts of variable non-synchronous renewable generation.

In fact, the record breaking red letter earlier was a significant evet for the DS3 programme. At the time, EirGrid’s director of operations Robin McCormick said: “Dealing with wind generation of this scale on a small, island electricity grid hasn’t been done anywhere else in the world and so this is a huge achievement for EirGrid. We’ve been working hard towards making this happen, analysing data and using all of our expertise to harness ever increasing amounts of wind.  We will continue to optimise the electricity system, which is ultimately about reducing the cost of electricity for the consumer.”

Significent Climate Change

And there are more costs than the euros in your bank account involved. A senior ESB manager, told Decision magazine: “The world has just crossed the 400 parts per billion CO2 threshold. This means that we are on the way to significant climate change if we don’t take action. We simply have to decarbonise. There is no other choice. Wind energy, of which Ireland has plentiful supply, is making an essential contribution to that effort.” D