“Don’t backtrack on Offshore wind and wave for Ireland”

Norway is investing heavily in offshore wind, and have led the way in a new generation of ‘floating’ wind turbines that can be positioned further offshore. The example here is the Hywind turbine which was installed in the North Sea in 2010.Image is open source from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hywind.jpg

That was one of the messages that emerged at a topical public lecture on renewable energy strategies at NUIG Galway, on November 3rd* organized by the Centre for Environment, Development, and Sustainability**. The keynote speaker, Dr. David Toke***, is a well regarded British academic who has written extensively on the question of renewable energies, and in the UK he has been associated with campaigns to ensure access for small producers of renewables to UK government financial supports and grid connections.

Dr.Toke noted that the current financial and banking crisis was overlaid upon an energy crises which was sometimes forgotten about: we are simply too dependent on costly or volatile oil, and this probably would place a limit on our capacitities as western societies to return to higher levels of sustainable growth even if the mess with our banks and monetray policies were sorted out. There was a need to find new sources of energy and integrate these into existing energy systems, according to Dr.Toke.

Dr. Brendan Flynn, of the School of Political Science & Sociology NUIG, in an introduction, pointed out that Ireland’s worsening state of public finances has called into question the offical ambitious targets which Ireland has for renewables. By 2020, about 40 per cent of Irish electricty is supposed to be generated from renewables. Irish renewables, today contribute under 15 per cent of Irish electricity, which Dr. Toke argued was already a much better performance than what the UK had achieved: around 8 per cent. He noted that onshore wind energy in Ireland was already competitive with traditional sources of power. Irish wind farms had an availablity rate of 30 per cent compared with 17 per cent on the continent, because Irish wind conditions were fundamentally more favourable. He also argued that that the target of 40 per cent renewables by 2020 was ‘about right. Scotland are aiming for that and will probably make a serious effort to get beyond that’. Equally he argued that the Irish feed-in tariff system was not overly generous or excessive.

However, reaching the amibitious targets within 9 years has been called into question by a lack of public and private cash for investment. Even the Irish government’s own economic think-tank, the ESRI, have in April of this year controversially called for feed-in tarriffs for the emerging offshore wind and wave sector to be cut, with the suggestion made that feed in tarrifs should only be directed at land based wind farms. If this happens, it seems very doubtful that Ireland will meet its traget of 500MW of ocean (wave) energy and 2,400+MW of offshore wind by 2020. The upcoming Budget for 2012 could make changes in this area which have the scope to inflict lasting damage on Ireland’s chances to be a player in the emerging sectors of offshore wind and wave.

In contrast to this unfortunate scenario, Dr. Toke argued the history of how renewables emerged, for example in countries like Denmark, had much to teach Ireland today. Vital in Denmark’s success with renewables, was public support and in some case there were local experiments and community entreprenuriship specifically in the wind sector. This all helped to keep political pressure on the national government to back wind even when some economists were arguing that renewables were too costly or unreliable. By the 1990s the cost competitiveness for wind was close enough to conventional fuel sources and the relaibility issues have mostly been addressed. Equally crucial was long-term financial support from successive Danish governments who provided a stable feed-in tarriff system over a decade or more to cushion the infant Danish renewable sector. One lesson here seems to be that if you don’t take these sorts of measures as country, the risks are you will simply end up with a very limited uptake of renewables or the only developers will be large multi-national utility firms whose approach can be less sensitive than local or co-operative groups.

The sensitivity of wind farms to local objections and planning concerns was comprehensively discussed. Dr. Toke  expressed some sympathy with such concerns, and indeed it should be noted that a shift to offshore wind across Europe has unquestionably been embraced in part to mitigate planning objections and local resistence. Ironically, therefore if Ireland chooses to not invest in offshore wind and wave, planning disputes with a greater number of land based wind farms might well increase over the coming years.

However, moving offshore did not mean planning complexities would simply disappear, indeed Dr.Toke noted the contrast between England and Wales where offshore planning was complicated and slow, whereas Scotland had developed a model one-stop-shop marine planning authority which was a help to all concerned.  Dr.Toke argued than proper democratic planning procedures had to be gone through and there was no justification for short-cuts or rail-roading projects. While in the UK there were many refusals, there were equally enough approvals to match policy targets. He also felt that some objections might not be as serious as is sometimes claimed, for example Scotish government research had suggested that the use of peatlands for windfarms was less of a concern than some experts have voiced.

In summary, Dr.Toke argued the entire tone of the ESRI’s recent Review of Irish Energy policy was flawed in that it took as its baseline the idea that Irish energy policy should be dominated chiefly by low-cost concerns and that no policies which involved higher costs should be seriously considered. He concluded, it was wrong to say ‘we’re not going to spend any extra money on saving the planet…let someone else do it’. Who would that be and why? The risk had to be that Ireland would be left far behind as the Scottish, Danes, Dutch were all investing heavily in a new generation of offshore wind and wave technologies.


*“Greening Irish Energy policy: lessons, strategies, models. What can ecological modernization teach us?” Dr. David Toke , Thursday November 3rd, 2011,  Tyndall Theatre, NUIG, 16,00-17,30hrs.

**See: http://www.nuigalway.ie/soc/research_clusters/governance_overview.html and http://www.ryaninstitute.ie/research/socio-economics-and-policy/

***Dr David Toke is Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy in the Department of Political Science and International Studies in the University of Birmingham (UK). He was a key player in the campaign to establish feed-in tariffs for small renewable projects in the UK, the legislation for which was passed in 2008. His latest academic book is called ‘Ecological Modernization and Renewable Energy’, published in March 2011 by Palgrave.  He has published many papers in leading political science journals on environmental, especially energy (and renewable energy) issues and he is also a frequent and well cited contributor to the journal ‘Energy Policy’ published by Elsevier. His blog can be found at http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.com/



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