Richard Curran: Policy change is in the wind with ESB's offshore energy drive
Offshore wind farms finally look set to become a reality in Irish waters. News this week that ESB plans a major investment in offshore wind projects must reflect a change in government thinking on the subject of offshore wind power.
ESB would not make a commitment like this unless it knew something was happening.
The fact that ESB is planning a major move into this area, on both sides of the Irish Sea, could also spell good news for one or more of the five projects in various states of gestation in Irish waters, some of them for several years. ESB may choose to develop its own projects completely from scratch, but surely it would be quicker to invest in or buy out some of the projects that have been in the planning for over a decade in some cases.
These include Oriel Windfarm, a proposed major wind farm off the coast near Dundalk Bay. It has described itself as "shovel ready". Backers of this project include Gaelectric and Glen Dimplex founder Martin Naughton.
Another potential beneficiary is Codling Wind, a planned 220-turbine farm proposed for 13km off the Wicklow coast between Greystones and Wicklow town. This one is backed by Norwegian renewable mogul Fred Olsen and members of the family of property developer Johnny Ronan.
The Ronan family owns 50pc of the joint venture which has seen its shareholders pump close to €10m into the project only to have it stalled. Johnny Ronan is very much back in business himself and while he only owns a tiny percentage of the venture, he returned to the board of Hazel Shore Ltd in June of this year, having stepped down a few years ago. This is the Ronan family company that owns half of the Codling venture.
Hazel Shore wrote down the value of its 50pc shareholding in Codling to zero back in 2015 as it ceased development of the project. Perhaps that looks set to change.
Codling received a 99-year foreshore lease back in 2005. However, prohibitive costs and a government desire to focus on onshore wind farms stalled all of these projects.
Ireland is on track to miss its 2020 renewables targets and one offshore industry estimate suggested the only way of meeting them would be to have 1,000 MWs of offshore wind energy in place. Hazel Shore 's directors include former civil servant Paddy Teahon, who received almost €200,000 in consultancy fees in 2014 and 2015. The cost of producing offshore wind energy has fallen dramatically in recent years, which would reduce the level of subsidy required by the state to make these projects commercially viable.
ESB has obviously done its sums on this one. Offshore turbines are bigger than onshore equipment and the Codling project estimated that with a second phase of a further 200 turbines it would generate enough electricity for 600,000 homes.
On the British side of the Irish Sea offshore farms are pressing ahead. Danish wind farm giant Dong is developing major projects which include its Walney project off the coast of Cumbria. Walney generated its first power this week, having installed the first 87 turbines. When completed it will be the largest offshore wind farm in the world.
The wind has changed somewhat in relation to onshore wind farms in Ireland with many communities saying they have enough and strict new guidelines due to come into force on proposed new projects. ESB's foray into offshore is significant but the planning and public consultation process involved in any Irish offshore wind operation could be tricky. The Department of Energy's guidelines run to 111 pages but clearly there is a greater urgency to deliver on renewables other than just more wind farms, and the technology is making them more commercially viable. One industry source suggested the largest offshore turbines can generate 9MWs - three times more than just two to three years ago.
The Vestas V164 turbine holds the world record for the most electricity produced by one turbine in a 24-hour period. It generated enough in one day to provide 15 years of electricity for one typical Irish household.
No easy solutions to problem of deciding future of bank branches
Bank of Ireland's incoming chief executive is developing her own answers to a conundrum facing most banks around the world. What do we do with bank branches?
Francesca McDonagh is set take over in a few weeks but the bank is reported to be working on a rather complicated three-tier bank branch structure. Having announced the end of cash services at 100 branches during the summer, the new plan is trying to take account of the best advice on the future of branch banking.
Bank of Ireland is looking at retaining all services at a top tier of around 50 branches. Then it will have a middle-tier with some services withdrawn and a bottom tier with only minimal levels of service.
Branches are expensive to maintain and as more people use online banking, the need for them appears less. However, it isn't as simple as that. One global study of 55,000 bank customers by EY found that customers who are more digitally savvy are not necessarily financially savvy. They want things explained to them when it comes to purchasing financial products.
Equally, some of the more financially savvy are not the most digitally savvy, and studies have found that millennials (perhaps the most digitally savvy) are often the ones who most want a personal touch by having things explained to them in branches.
Hence bankers find the need to retain bank branches but have them do different things. There has been a big cull of branches in the UK, not least by HSBC under Ms McDonagh's watch.
However, closing branches is quite politically sensitive in Ireland especially where small rural communities are involved.
The theory might be to have staff in a branch sell and explain financial products to a savvy tech generation who go online for other bank services. But what if there aren't many tech savvy young middle class professionals knocking around small Irish towns, because they have either emigrated or moved to Dublin? Bank of Ireland is planning a massive IT investment programme which will cost €900m to €1bn and forms the backdrop for branch changes. They have to find the money somewhere.
Drinks chiefs won't toast tax cut
There is an annual pre-Budget ritual between the drinks industry and Department of Finance. The booze business looks for a cut in excise duty in the budget because, well something is about to go wrong somewhere.
In reality, they know they haven't a hope of getting a cut so they are really just asking for it in the hope the rate won't be put up.
This week the Irish Wine Association was looking for an excise reduction having just had a record-equalling nine million cases sold last year. The pick-up in sales was linked to higher disposable income, consumer confidence, shifting preferences and more value for money plonk on the shelves.
However, the IWA warned that the relatively high level of excise duty on wine and a possible fall-off in UK tourist numbers due to Brexit posed a risk to sales for the sector.
In 2013, wine sales in Ireland hit a post-crash low of 8.2 million cases. So they are up 800,000 cases despite the higher excise.
But trouble is brewing with Brexit. Lower sterling will definitely bring more people across the Border this winter and the possibility of duty-free drink for passengers travelling from the UK to Ireland, would be a double whammy. Still, I wouldn't bet on an excise reduction in the budget.
Sunday Indo Business