Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently set out his ambition for an energy-independent Ireland during his visit to Ostend. The country is already making strides in this direction, with the opening of its first offshore wind energy auction in recent weeks. The first group of projects is competing to provide electricity at the best possible price, and successful projects will take a significant step forward when the results are announced in May. However, these projects face new challenges, including a broken planning system, an electricity grid that urgently needs reinforcement, and a lack of ports infrastructure.
The planning system is one of the biggest obstacles for every single offshore wind energy project in Ireland. Planning applications for onshore wind farms are supposed to be decided by An Bord Pleanála within 18 weeks, but it is taking more than a year on average. It is uncertain how long it will take to review applications for offshore projects that are far larger and much more complex. There is also a concern about whether a decision to grant planning permission will survive any judicial review. An Bord Pleanála does not have the necessary resources to deal with the volume and complexity of offshore wind planning applications. More inspectors, ecologists, and marine biologists are needed to permit projects quickly enough. Investment is required in other critical agencies like the new Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, which needs to be established as soon as possible. Environmental and fishing stakeholders must also be supported to be part of this process.
Ireland’s grid is another obstacle to the development of offshore wind projects. The electricity grid was built for a 20th century fossil-fuel economy. It must be completely redesigned and reinforced to support a new, energy-independent Ireland relying mainly on wind and solar power. EirGrid has a strategy for how to do this, which is expected to be outlined in a report due this summer with new solutions to accommodate Ireland’s massive wind energy resources. Reinforcing and strengthening Ireland’s electricity grid must be a national mission, something supported right across the political spectrum and from government buildings down to local county councils. Critically needed new grid infrastructure like the North-South Interconnector must be built, and investment must be made to ensure that the system can eventually operate with 100% renewable energy. Those seeking to undermine this strategy, to keep our electricity system stuck in the 20th century, are risking our country’s energy security and our economic future.
Ireland needs to improve its ports to build offshore wind farms. There is not a single port in the Republic capable of being used to build an offshore wind farm. While Belfast Harbour is an outstanding facility that can build offshore wind farms, we cannot simultaneously build all the offshore wind farms we need from a single location. Several ports, like Rosslare, Cork Dockyard, Port of Cork, and Shannon-Foynes, plan to expand so they can build offshore wind farms, but these improvements require significant investment. While they can raise much of this themselves, support from the State is crucial. If offshore wind energy is, as the Taoiseach describes it, ‘our 21st century moonshot’, then there is no better place to invest some of the country’s significant financial resources than in our port infrastructure. Without more ports, we will either miss our 2030 targets or build these wind farms from ports outside of Ireland. Instead of creating jobs in Wexford, Cork, and Limerick, our wind farms will be providing employment in Britain and France.
In conclusion, it is possible to build an energy-independent Ireland at the heart of an energy-secure Europe. The country has the resources, expertise, and projects ready to go. However, it needs action to overcome the challenges it faces. The broken planning system, lack of ports infrastructure, and need for a redesigned and reinforced electricity grid must be addressed. Investment is required in critical agencies and stakeholders to be part of the process. If these challenges are overcome, Ireland can become a leader in offshore wind energy and create jobs and a sustainable future for its citizens. Noel Cunniffe, CEO of Wind Energy Ireland, believes that offshore wind energy is the country’s 21st-century moonshot, and it is time to invest in making it a reality.