When you stop and stand on the head in Skerries in north Dublin and stare out to sea, it is possible, once in a while, to spot small glimpses of the future.
Strange looking ships with huge drilling units and other types of equipment have appeared on the horizon over recent months, disappearing again just as quickly as they appear. They are the harbingers of a new energy industry that could transform the entire economy.
The ships have been carrying out geotechnical surveys for the pre-planning phase of the North Irish Sea Array, a proposed wind farm that will stretch along the Dublin, Meath and Louth coastlines, generating enough power for 500,000 homes.
It is just one of six projects in Irish waters – five in the Irish Sea – preparing to bid for electricity supply contracts in the coming months ahead of potentially submitting full planning applications.
It’s a future of which most people are either only vaguely aware, hopeful for in a disbelieving kind of way, or scathingly hostile. Talk of planning hold ups, supply chain issues and frustrated international backers tend to dominate any conversation on the topic.
And for now, out beyond tiny Rockabill with its lighthouse and Shenick Island with its Martello tower – construction marvels from bygone ages that likely would never have gotten through judicial reviews – there is nothing but the odd ghostly ship and a blue horizon stretching from Lambay to the Mournes.
It’s not hard to understand why some feel uneasy about the wind turbines it is proposed will, by the end of the decade, spread along this horizon like a necklace.
But, in reality, that debate is well and truly over. Some crises and disasters, like the earthquake in Syria and Turkey, happen in an instant, killing tens of thousands and uprooting millions in one dreadful fell swoop. Other disasters wreak their havoc over decades, like the accelerating but slow moving climate catastrophe with which we are now living.
Indeed the climate crisis is at a point that some experts struggle to tell the full frightening truth as they see it because of the fear that it can only generate mass hopelessness rather than the effort and investment that is needed to confront the issue.
Other disasters wreak their havoc over decades, like the accelerating but slow moving climate catastrophe
The North Irish Sea Array and the other five similar so-called “pathfinder” projects that are planned to run along much of the Leinster coast, as impressive as they are, will barely shift the dial in terms of Earth’s climate. But the outcome of these projects is central to the hope that the island of Ireland can, over the coming decade, be transformed into a low carbon economy that can sustain a population of up to 10 million.
Progress or otherwise will provide an excellent barometer of where we as a country are in that regard over the next five years.
And, while others see it much less optimistically, there is in fact plenty of hope, according to one renewable energy expert. Garret Monaghan of Pinsent Masons, an international law firm which specialises in big energy and infrastructure projects, is very optimistic about where the entire Irish renewables sector – and the offshore wind sector specifically – is headed. He is convinced that advances over the past 12 months in planning, legislation, grid access and the route to market for the power from these big projects have moved the potential for these key windfarms to get built on to a huge degree.
‘We’re in a much better place. I’d be very bullish about where the industry is at now’
“What’s happened in the last 12 months is remarkable in terms of speed and in terms of getting our act together. There are still plenty of challenges ahead but, for example, the position on consenting for these projects is monumentally clearer than it was a year ago when we were reliant on legislation that goes back to 1933,” he told me. “We’re in a much better place. I’d be very bullish about where the industry is at now.”
Anyone who looks at the issue of housing and how badly impacted that has been by a woefully inadequate planning system will not be optimistic about the ability of this system to deal quickly, fairly and successfully with these huge wind projects.
But Monaghan insists that the system put in place to deal with offshore wind planning – while it may not yet have been tested – is “fit for purpose”.
“Of course there will be judicial review and planning issues – that’s a given. But the biggest issues around planning happen when you don’t have a decent framework or regulatory regime. And we do have those things now,” he said.
Undoubtedly, massive challenges lie ahead.
If Monaghan’s optimism proves misplaced over the coming crucial year, when these projects are expected to move into the planning process, it will be sobering and depressing for those who place great hope in the industry as one that can prove transformative.
But if he is right, the horizon will soon start to get very busy indeed.