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Offshore wind is moving from the talking to the doing phase

There are plenty of hurdles – and lots of scepticism too – but the promise of offshore wind for Ireland is too big to ignore

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Vanessa O’Connell, Head of Inis Offshore Wind (centre)

Vanessa O’Connell, Head of Inis Offshore Wind (centre)

Stock image. Picture by RWE

Stock image. Picture by RWE

In Ireland there has been a lot of talk about the potential of offshore wind to transform Ireland’s energy sector

In Ireland there has been a lot of talk about the potential of offshore wind to transform Ireland’s energy sector

In Ireland there has been a lot of talk about the potential of offshore wind to transform Ireland’s energy sector

In Ireland there has been a lot of talk about the potential of offshore wind to transform Ireland’s energy sector

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Vanessa O’Connell, Head of Inis Offshore Wind (centre)

No industry holds the promise of radical transformation across the Irish economy like the offshore wind sector.

Just as the oil and gas sector once held out the promise of energy self-sufficiency from beneath the waves, supporters and promoters of the growing new sector now argue that the copious winds on Irish waters hold the promise to a bright, sustainable future for the Irish economy.

The Government has upped its ambitious 2030 target for energy from renewable sources to 80pc – and offshore wind is expected to do the heavy lifting with at least five gigawatts of power.

In Ireland there has been a lot of talk about the potential of offshore wind to transform Ireland’s energy sector, but there has been a nagging fear that it would remain just that: talk. But so confident is Vanessa O’Connell – the new head of State-backed Inis Offshore Wind – in the potential of the sector here that she has moved back from the UK after 13 years working in senior roles with some of the biggest offshore wind developers in the world.

She believes that after a long period of inaction, the sector here has reached a turning point.

“I think we are moving away from the talking phase to the real phase,” she told the Sunday Independent.

Inis, which is backed by both the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) and AIB, as well as other international investors, through the renewable energy focused Temporis Aurora Fund, is hoping to develop an initial one gigawatt of wind capacity. It has two prospective sites on the east coast, with other sites located on the south and west coasts.

The initial focus is on the two east coast projects, both of which have the potential to deliver wind farms outputting 500mw apiece, enough combined to power 800,000 homes.

O’Connell believes if people see a real benefit within their communities it will mean greater support for the technology along the coastline.

“Obviously it’s about generating electrons and getting us to net zero,” said O’Connell. “But how can we directly benefit the people of Ireland in a more meaningful way that changes their daily lives? And that’s through jobs. It’s about getting the supply chain set up here. It’s about developing turbine technician apprenticeship programmes for example. These are the things we should be focusing on. I’m very keen on bringing people along.”

Achieving the potential of the sector requires legislation and a framework to build out the projects that are in the pipeline of numerous developers, including Inis.

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“There’s still quite a lot of work to get that implemented but once we get through that we’re going to start really seeing projects come to fruition. The typical capital investment for a one gigawatt project is between €2bn to €3bn, she says.

“That’s a huge amount of capital that we need to leverage. But our focus now is to get these projects up and running and once you do there is a lot of capital in the market because a lot of investors are looking to go green. So our job now is to make these projects viable by working with the communities and other stakeholders.”

Ultimately, as the projects progress, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, insurance companies and other large, long-term investors would be expected to become involved.

But to get to this stage requires a whole series of hurdles to be overcome, and plenty of people both in and outside the sector are sceptical that Ireland has the ability to make it happen, not least because of Ireland’s ongoing poor record of delivering major infrastructure projects in a timely and cost effective manner.

Everything from the vagaries of the planning system, to difficulties around foreshore licences, to the slow pace of grid connections are all problems that have ensured that offshore wind success has been difficult to achieve here to date.

But O’Connell insists there has been progress and there is cause for optimism.

For example, the Government has launched a consultation with stakeholders as to how the first auction under its Offshore Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (ORESS1) might operate, the first step in paving the way for a growing number of prospective large-scale wind farms.

“There have been some challenges,” she says. “But I’m incredibly optimistic about where we are going. That is my nature.”

Another key step forward, she says, has been the publication by the Government earlier this year of a new marine spatial plan, the first for Ireland’s waters, followed by the publication of the crucial Marine Area Planning Bill, which it has promised will pass into law by the end of the year.

This will allow for the establishment of Mara, a new authority to oversee the regulation and the consenting process for offshore wind farms. Without that the industry cannot progress. But implemented correctly it can do what the National Roads Authority did for the motorway building programme 20 years ago. The coming months will tell a lot in this regard.

Of course, offshore wind carries long-term promise for Ireland and will not solve the short-term pinch point in which the grid finds itself facing. Nor is it an immediate solution in the debate over the ever growing number of energy hungry data centres that are being built here. And, as a developer with prospective sites right around the coast, O’Connell is not prepared to rush the process with Inis.

“We’re very committed to going through the right process with stakeholders and with regard to consenting to make sure that we build sustainable projects that work in the long-term,” she says. “We could be looking at getting our two east coast projects generating at the back end of the 2020s, maybe 2028 or 2029, and we are pushing to make that happen.

“In the near term there is obviously a challenge that needs to be overcome, but where Ireland should be focusing is on the long-term. The Government currently has a target for 2030 but I think we would like to see more ambition and let’s go beyond 2030. We have the potential for 30 gigawatts of floating offshore winds off the coast in the Atlantic. Let’s start talking about that, focusing on how we can actually deliver and get the infrastructure that we need so we’re not in the challenging position that we are facing over over the next number of years.”

But for this optimism to mean anything O’Connell says it is imperative the Government sticks to its timelines and keeps early momentum in the sector going.

“It is also about other key regulatory and stakeholder bodies, such as Eirgrid and An Bord Pleanála,” says O’Connell. “They need to focus on resourcing their teams.”

She welcomes a recent announcement from An Bord Pleanála that it is going to have a dedicated team to deal with renewable energy projects. Another key part of the jigsaw due this year is the promised publication by Eirgrid of its vision for the national grid. She also believes it is crucial that as a country Ireland begins to build the supply chain here that will be required to ensure offshore wind farms get built out of Irish ports rather than out of the UK.

“In the UK we saw the publication of an offshore wind sector deal, which is effectively an industrialisation strategy for offshore wind. It is a handshake between the industry and the government around delivering offshore wind.”

Effectively, the industry there has committed to a 60pc aspirational target for using local content in building projects and the government in return has committed to fully supporting the industry. It is something that O’Connell believes could really push the industry forward here and help it to create jobs and a new industrial sector around the coastline, were it to be replicated here.

“We have to look at where we are now and then look at what we can achieve and what industries we can realistically get here in the short-term and in the long-term. Ultimately, it would be amazing if we could have a manufacturing base here for turbines. But I think we need to be realistic about where we are in terms of supply chain. Let’s first think about the operational and maintenance vessels, for example. Can we build them in Ireland? We as an industry can do so much but it does go back to the likes of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland all coming together on this. We can’t underestimate the challenge. I’ve worked in the UK and they are still working hard at building an industry that has been there for the last 20 years. We need to start now.” 

Places such as Aberdeen already have an advantage because many of the skills in the oil and gas industry – welding, for example – are transferable into offshore wind and are readily available. Ireland needs to begin building this base from scratch, she says. Competing for labour with the skills-starved construction sector as it attempts to build 30,000 homes a year will be a challenge, for example.

Can it be done? The answer to that will be apparent long before the first new offshore wind farms appear on the horizon.

If the opportunity is missed, future generations will have one more reason to judge this one harshly.


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