Is answer to energy crisis really blowing in the wind?
Last week, Scotland generated enough wind energy to power the whole country for a day. But with many in Ireland opposed to turbines, and wind energy ineffective at reducing CO2, is it something we should pursue, asks our reporter
A campaign has begun in north Kerry to raise €80,000 to fight plans for a wind farm that would house 10 of the country's biggest turbines. An Bord Pleanála granted permission for the 511ft industrial wind turbines in the Finuge area. The community is trying to understand why planning was granted after 369 objections were filed against the plans and An Bord Pleanála's own inspector advised against it.
"There is a terrible anger here," Gerry Doyle, chairman of The North Kerry Turbine Awareness Group, says. "This is a penal tax on my community despite the highest number of objections in the history of Kerry County Council. It is an absolute disgrace, and the question that we need to be asking is how much money did Ireland Inc get from the wind industry last year if you withdrew subsidies?" The action group plans on fighting all the way to the High Court.
All over Ireland, similar battles are taking place as the Government seeks to meet our binding EU 2020 targets. "Since 2003, in excess of 190 wind farms, connected across 24 counties, have been installed," according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. "We are over halfway to meeting our heat and transport targets, and need to accelerate action in relation to energy efficiency measures."
Wind Aware Ireland is an organisation that represents around 45 community groups concerned about the current wind-energy strategy. "We set up Wind Aware two years ago because we felt there was a need for a voice to represent these communities," chairman Henry Fingleton tells Review. "Mainstream media was pitching opposition to wind farms as Nimbyism. The debate about wind energy here was focused only on social issues like community impact and noise. These are relevant and important, but the debate must first examine if wind energy is capable of reducing CO2 and, if so, at what cost?"
"Energy specialists Pöyry Consulting and Cambridge Econometrics carried out a total economic cost-benefit review of Wind Energy in Ireland," says Brian Dawson, head of communications at Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA). "It found that Irish wind energy is bringing down (the price of) wholesale electricity, attracting inward investment, creating jobs, and contributing rates and development contributions to help fund our local authorities."
But an official cost-benefit analysis on wind and other sustainables has never been carried out. "This cost-benefit analysis would determine all the benefits, subtract all the costs and reveal if a net benefit to Ireland existed from wind energy. We have no idea what we are getting in terms of value for money," says Fingleton.
Presenting the two sides as climate-change denying Nimbies versus green crusaders confuses the real question: are wind farms effective at reducing CO2 emissions? Do the benefits they bring outweigh the costs they impose? Right now, wind energy is reducing CO2 by just 3pc. Some experts suggest the real figure is even less.
There has been significant continued investment in Ireland's wind-energy sector, with over €350m invested in wind infrastructure in 2015. We will see a further €410m investment on average annually over the next four years. Households and business electricity bills will rise from October when the Commission for Energy Regulation increases the public service obligation (PSO) charge by €76m to cover supports for the wind industry. The move means the charge imposed on each home will now be €72.28 over 12 months - a very substantial 20pc increase.
For all this investment, wind energy has saved Ireland €70m in foreign energy imports since the beginning of 2016, according to provisional new figures compiled by the IWEA. But Irish wind energy is also an attraction for big-name investment here, according to Dawson.
"The recent high-profile examples of Facebook choosing to locate a new data centre in Meath, and Apple choosing to locate a new data centre in Galway, both selected with an eye to their need for the high-energy-use facilities to be powered by 100pc renewable electricity," he says.
"We expect wind energy costs to drop further in the future as a result of continued technological advances, helping us to bring down electricity costs further for Irish consumers.
"Wind energy employs over 3,400 people across the country, bringing income to Irish families as well as benefits directly to neighbouring communities. Working with farmers and rural communities, we in the wind industry want Ireland to benefit from the considerable opportunity that exists to power our homes, farms, factories, offices and lives using an indigenous resource that will continue to bring down electricity prices into the future.
"In terms of payback period, typically a wind farm would be paying back its capital costs over approximately 15-20 years, depending on how the financing is structured," he adds.
This might work if we could store electricity for when it is needed, but we cannot, at least not in large quantities. The power companies still have to generate it at exactly the moment you want to use it.
Unfortunately, the wind might not be blowing when you want your morning shower. If it only starts blowing when you've gone to work unshowered, that is no good, so wind requires constant back-up from conventional, fossil-fuel power. These back-up plants operate at 50pc of normal efficiency and produce more CO2 per megawatt of electricity than if they were running at full capacity, doing nothing to reduce global warming.
One Irish study, A Cost Benefit Analysis of Wind Power by Eleanor Denny, found that "the carbon dioxide reduction benefits of a carbon price can be completely outweighed by the added cycling costs. When a carbon price and wind generation are combined, the cycling costs are increased further and it was found that even with 3000MW of installed wind generation, the cycling costs can still exceed the value of the saved carbon dioxide emissions".
"Wind energy is based on the premise that at some stage, somewhere, we'll find a storage means. Right now, all we can do is pump water from one lake to another, but this is incredibly expensive to build and you lose lots of efficiency," says Mr Fingleton.
"Reducing energy usage is something we should be looking into. That's something that everybody likes talking about, but nobody likes doing. If we had done a cost-benefit analysis on wind energy, the merits of reducing usage would have been evaluated as well as the pros and cons of other sustainable energy sources like biomass and solar power. Instead, what we've got is very much an Irish-style policy."