Renewables Future Left Blowing in the Wind

Mon, Apr 02, 2012

Ambitious plans to capitalise on renewable opportunities in Ireland appear to have stalled and it remains to be seen if the Government can get things back on track, writes JOHN REYNOLDS 

THE GOVERNMENT’S jobs action plan talks of building upon our Emerald Isle image and capitalising on opportunities, particularly in renewable energy, to “green” the economy. But has the dream faded?

“I was looking for very specific, measurable, timelined tasks . They’re not there. Without those, we don’t have a plan,” is the blunt observation of Joe O’Carroll, managing director of Maynooth and Cheshire-based Imperative Energy, a biomass systems company, on what he says is essentially a long “to-do” list that was announced last month by the Government.

While understandably focused on attempting to stabilise the economy, it remains to be seen whether Fine Gael and Labour can help the reinvigorate a sector that seems to have fallen into the doldrums.

Subsidy schemes for wind farms and biomass systems that were stalled somewhere between here and Brussels for more than a year have only recently been approved, for example.

But in the meantime, no one in business or Government has painted a detailed, meaningful picture of what the nation might look like if we capitalised on our strengths and addressed our weaknesses in this sector.

If we contrast our situation with Britain, the industry there is encouraged by a green investment bank with £3 billion of financial muscle behind it to boost investment and a fast-track system for planning permission for renewables.

In the US, the sector has received hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus spending. Among the projects showcased at last month’s annual conference for the US department of energy’s advanced research projects division were batteries that could give electric cars a 500-mile range, fuel that could be extracted from tobacco leaves, a biofuel derived from bacteria, giant batteries to back up solar parks and wind farms and laser-powered drills that improve access to geothermal energy.

Although overshadowed by the $535 million of taxpayers’ money lost on solar firm Solyndra, those recent examples of the type of inventive research the US is funding beg the question of whether there is enough RD happening here.

The uncomfortable but likely answer is that there is not and that there will not be while our secondary and third-level education standards are falling.

We are still several years away from having the scale of wind, wave, tidal energy installations and other renewables needed to transform how Ireland generates electricity.

Marine energy is still being commercialised. Wind has received hundreds of millions of euro in subsidies to date, but it is not clear if more can be connected to our grid without prohibitively increasing our electricity bills even further.

The ESB and Bord Gáis, which have mainly been active in wind energy development, may be sold off, with as yet unknown effects.

The Spirit of Ireland project, now known as Natural Hydro Energy – an ambitious project that involves building man-made pumped storage reservoirs to provide carbon-free energy to back up wind farms – is at least two years away from starting, subject to planning permission, sources say. It could take another four years to build.

In the short term, our indebted State could provide a €300m annual stimulus to the domestic economy by supporting the biomass sector in one relatively simple way, O’Carroll says.

All that is needed is for the Government to alter how it procures heating fuel – currently imported gas and oil – for all public buildings in the State.

“We could offer fully financed solutions with no capital cost to the State. We’re asking for a chance to tender for a long-term renewable energy-heating solution using the technology that makes the most economic sense,” he says.

He has proposed this several times to the relevant ministers and Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland. “They listen, but then somewhere in the system, the idea gets bogged down in inertia, he adds.

Paul Carbery of Wicklow firm RES, an installer of small-scale renewable energy systems, whose clients are small- and medium- sized businesses, has turned to the UK, where these systems receive a small subsidy, to grow his business.

He shares this frustration. “The level of engagement and understanding from the Department of Energy seems very poor. I’m not sure civil servants take our industry and the support it needs, which can in turn create jobs, seriously.”

It is this inertia that has driven some of our other successful renewable energy companies into the arms of other, more proactive governments.

The Scottish government helped to finance the initial trials of Dublin and Louth-based tidal turbine maker Openhydro in 2007, for example.

Responding to our queries on plans for the sector, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan said: “In our efforts to return to stronger economic growth, it is of the utmost importance that we embed rigorous sustainability requirements in economic and environmental terms. If we get our growth strategy wrong, we run the very real and significant risk of locking ourselves into an environmentally unsustainable future that will undermine our credibility on environmental grounds, and our competitive position in the medium and longer term.

“The deep cuts in emissions that will be required in the period to 2050 represent a huge challenge for Ireland, but an early and effective transition to a low-carbon path holds out the prospect of a real opportunity to demonstrate environmental credibility, and achieve competitive advantage in the emerging global green economy.”

The Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte did not respond to our questions.

Some industry executives would welcome the appointment of a minister who is accountable for meeting certain green-energy targets and supporting growth in the wider green economy.

Others argue that an existing umbrella organisation, Sustainable Energy Ireland, run by a proven management team whose salaries are linked to their results, would be preferable.

After a year in power, it would be unfair to say this Government has abandoned the green economy, but there is a perceivable sense of ambivalence about it, amongst many in the sector.

In the face of increasing home heating, petrol and electricity bills, aside from perhaps a few more wind turbines dotted around the countryside and the odd electric car charging point here and there, there is very little happening that is tangible to the wider public.

As a result, we are arguably a long way off making the economy very much greener, or generating any significant numbers of new jobs in this sector.

More worryingly for the future, aside from the wave and tidal technologies being developed here, there are few encouraging signs that an energy technology with the potential to be a global game-changer will emerge from Ireland in the near future.

IThey listen, but then somewhere in the system, the idea gets bogged down in inertia

Stars of the green economy where are they now?

Some 90 per cent of this bioenergy system developers business is now done in the UK – it recently secured a €70 million contract in Birmingham.

A flagship project in Claremorris, Co Mayo, and a smaller one in Arklow are awaiting planning permission after being delayed by the finalisation of the Refit3 subsidy scheme, which it hopes will boost its Irish business once again.

This Maynooth wave energy developer aims to have its first 100kw device installed in Scotland early next year, followed by two more in Portugal and the US over the next two years.

It shortly hopes to close a €10 million funding round and is part of the WestWave consortium, which aims to develop a wave farm off the west coast by 2016.

Its main focus is currently on the world’s largest tidal array off the Brittany coast for French utility giant EDF. It is expected to be completed later this year and has been supported by the EU, the Brittany region and the French government.

Other arrays in Scotland, the west of Ireland, Canada and the Channel Islands are planned in the coming years.

This multibillion-euro project is at least six years away from being completed. Pumped storage reservoirs in the west of Ireland, combined with onshore and offshore wind farms in the region, would provide hundreds of megawatts of carbon-free power for export to the UK.

Although the wind energy firm of Eddie O’Connor (below) is focused on wind farm developments in Chile, South Africa, North America and the North Sea, it also has a renewed interest in Ireland and intends to float on the Hong Kong stock exchange some time next year.
Published in The Irish Times:

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