Ireland gears up for offshore wind expansion

The Republic of Ireland’s proposed Renewable Energy Support Scheme is finally set to give offshore wind projects a route to market, says Ken Boyne, Managing Director at Dublin-based engineering group Ionic Consulting.

I’ve read a couple of recent opinion pieces giving reasons why the offshore wind industry in Ireland has never really materialised, and both citing the financial crisis of the last decade as being the main reason. This is incorrect, though it is certainly the root cause of a broad range of problems our recovering economy is only starting to remedy.

Rather, the main reason is the Irish government’s specific exclusion of offshore wind from all renewable energy support schemes dating back to the mid-2000s, thereby removing any feasible route to market. Consequently, only a 25MW prototype development at Arklow Bank by GE and Airtricity – commissioned in 2004 – was ever constructed in Irish waters, despite development plans for several GWs across a range of sites primarily off the east coast.

The rationale behind the government’s stance at the time was essentially threefold:

  • the large number of available onshore projects that could be delivered in support of Ireland’s EU 2020 RES target;
  • the high cost of offshore wind compared to onshore wind; and
  • the comparatively small scale of the potential Irish offshore market which was unlikely to lead to the establishment of manufacturing/assembly facilities in Ireland (which seemed to be a key justification for the initial level of support provided to the offshore industry by the UK government for example)

However, it appears that this stance is about to change given the recent publication of the consultation paper by the Irish Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment on the new proposed Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS).

This would be an auction-based system centred on a floating feed-in premium (similar to Contracts for Difference), which has been initially presented as a technology-agnostic process but with the option to include rounds of specific technology ‘pots’ if deemed appropriate.

This would appear to finally offer a potential route to market for Irish offshore projects – especially given the unprecedented recent auction results from around Europe. This will hopefully rekindle interest in those projects that have been idling for the past decade at a time when the latest figures indicate that Ireland could possibly fail to reach the EU 2020 RES targets – with of course more ambitious targets to follow for 2030 and beyond. For those countries still within the European Union, of course!

From a transmission system perspective, it is also good news with electricity system demand forecasted to rise over the next decade as a result of general economic growth, the increased development of large-scale data centres, greater migration towards electric vehicles for transport, and potentially some new incentives in the area of electrification of domestic heating.

All of these factors are disproportionately focussed on the Greater Dublin area: hence significant new generation connecting into the transmission network both north and south of Dublin should be welcomed by the Transmission System Operator, EirGrid – especially given their achievements over the last number of years in increasing the level of renewable energy penetration on the system which is heading towards an SNSP of 75% and hopefully beyond.

So the time for the Irish offshore industry appears to be imminent, with perhaps the deal between Parkwind and Oriel Wind Farm being the first of a number of similar ones to follow.

This is good news for the renewable energy industry in Ireland which for too long has been reliant on the onshore wind community. The future of renewable energy generation in Ireland will undoubtedly be an appropriate mix of technologies, with offshore wind playing an increasingly important role and with a talented and eager domestic supply chain ready to embrace the challenge.

Now, perhaps, that trip that I made to the Middelgrunden offshore project back in 2002 will finally pay off.