Thursday 23 November 2017

Wind and waves are future-proof

wERNER Kruckow is a man who sees opportunities lurking everywhere in Ireland's nascent alternative energy sector. The Siemens boss dreams of an Ireland that produces prodigious amounts of energy from the wind and waves that batter the west coast -- enough to power a new generation of electric cars and trains while also leaving a surplus for export.

That energy would then be sold to the rest of Europe through a network of undersea cables that would quickly turn Ireland from an importer of energy to an exporter.

Sitting in Dr Kruckow's white, streamlined office in Dublin, such a vision seems utopian, but the German-born engineer is convinced the technology exists to turn Ireland from a country that imports 80pc of our energy needs into an energy exporter.

Wind and wave turbines built by Siemens and other engineering companies already rotate night and day in the North Sea and the Baltic, providing about a quarter of Denmark's energy needs.

Wind and wave energy have long been touted as the answer to our energy problems, so often in fact that many people may not realise we are already generating significant amounts of electricity from the 148 existing wind farms in the country.

On windy nights, when energy usage is low, up to a quarter of electricity here in Ireland can be generated from the wind farms that have sprung up in 25 counties. This is still exceptional, however, and most of the time energy production from non-fossil fuels is much lower.

At present, most alternative energy comes from wind, but there are hopes that tidal energy could become an Irish success story as we have both water and tides in abundance.

One company hoping to make money from tidal energy is Dublin-based OpenHydro, which has a string of blue-chip shareholders including Bord Gais, One51 chief executive Philip Lynch and former Bloxham partner John Maguire.

Like many Irish companies involved in renewable energy, OpenHydro has so far enjoyed far more success abroad than at home. Last year, for example, the company agreed to co-develop a 200 megawatt tidal farm off the north coast of Scotland. This year, it agreed to do something similar off the French coast, while looking at projects in the US, Canada and the Channel Islands.

A tidal farm in the west of Ireland is also under consideration, but sources say it is at least a decade away.

While everybody from Dr Kruckow to Bord Gais chief executive John Mullins believes that tidal energy will have an important role to play, they all accept that it is early days for this largely untested resource.

In the meantime, Ireland needs to get cracking on the construction of a new set of cables to carry electricity generated from wind and water across the country and into the continent. Unfortunately, the existing system of pylons and cables is not suitable for the erratic power surges that emanate from wind farms, and massive investment will be required in the years ahead.

That won't be cheap; and in these straitened times, it won't be topping the new Government's list of things to do -- but do it they must. As more energy overseas comes from alternative sources, Ireland will have to begin importing alternative energy, even if we do not start producing our own.

The absurdity of an island nation surrounded by fierce seas and high winds importing alternative energy would be comparable to the absurdity of importing grass, limestone or other natural resources.

Whether that happens or not depends on government policy and economic developments, but we have been here before. When the country's first electricity system was built by Siemens in the 1920s, the then Government invested the equivalent of a quarter of gross domestic product on the Ardnacrusha plant on the Limerick-Clare border.

Whether our present leaders will be able to display the same vision as their revolutionary forefathers remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that alternative energy is one of the most exciting, and potentially lucrative, opportunities in Ireland today.

Dr Kruckow is convinced the technology exists to turn Ireland from a country that imports 80pc of our energy needs into an energy exporter

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