Potential for new jobs but real winner will be the consumer
THERE will be many economic benefits from the further development of the wind energy sector in Ireland.
The Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) estimates energy companies will invest €4.5bn in the sector in the next six years.
But while there is potential for creating thousands of jobs, in the long term, the economic benefits of wind energy will have less to do with employment on the wind farms themselves and more to do with spin-off jobs, tax revenues and local government rates.
An IWEA survey from last September showed that 3,407 people were working full time in the sector and 60pc of its members planned to recruit during 2014.
But estimates on the potential for job creation vary wildly. It all depends on the speed with which the industry expands.
With so many plans in the mix, an ESRI/ Trinity College study published last week gave three different scenarios for job creation prospects.
It found there was potential for the industry to support more than 8,300 jobs by 2020 if Ireland meets its renewable energy targets and installs 4,000MW of wind energy.
But if Ireland added an additional 4,000 (megawatts) MW of onshore and offshore wind energy capacity for export purposes, there would be potential for 17,000 jobs.
Under an even more ambitious scenario, if 12GW of installed wind capacity were to be developed there would be the potential for 22,700 jobs within the sector and 12,600 in other sectors of the economy as a result.
Although estimates for job creation vary, the consensus among industry watchers is that even after the expected explosion in wind farms over the next few years, the actual numbers directly employed to service and maintain turbines will remain relatively small.
The simple reason is that you don't need a lot of people to run a wind farm.
Bord na Mona plans to open two wind farms in Leinster by the end of the year, at Mount Lucas in Co Offaly and at Brukana at Templetuohy Bog, on the borders of counties Tipperary, Kilkenny and Laois.
Although there were at least 150 people working on Mount Lucas at the height of its construction, only around 20 people will be employed between there and Brukana when they both begin producing electricity.
In the short to medium term, engineering firms who have got into the sector early will do well. For example, one company specialising in wind-farm development, Tralee-based Moriarty Civil Engineering Contractors, has seen its workforce triple from 100 to 300 in the past four years.
But elsewhere, there is little in it for the indigenous manufacturing industry.
As yet there is no Irish company with the capacity to build industrial-size turbines, so the bulk of those will have to be imported. But cash-strapped local authorities will welcome the wind farms with open arms. Commercial rates paid to councils last year totalled around €12m and this figure is expected to be €27m-a-year by the end of the decade.
Landowners will also do well.
But John Lynch, manager of renewable energy at Bord na Mona, reckons the biggest winner could be the consumer.
He believes it will result in less of a reliance on conventional power stations, which are more expensive to operate.
"While you are importing turbines to generate electricity, you are then effectively substituting that electricity for what would otherwise be imported oil or gas," he said.