Can we really put sales in our wind?
THE wind farm industry was dangling the possibility last week of 35,000 new jobs in the sector if an ambitious plan was pursued. Any sector that says it can generate that much employment in the economy should be listened to carefully.
A report published last week, called An Enterprising Wind, outlined three future scenarios for the industry that could be pursued. Commissioned by the Irish Wind Energy Association and Siemens, and conducted by the ESRI and Trinity College, it was a pretty serious piece of research.
It said that if Ireland continued with its current target of 40 per cent of electricity generation from renewables by 2020, we should see a further 8,355 jobs created. This would see renewable power capacity hit 4GWs.
A second scenario envisaged those 4GWs plus a further 4GWs generated for the export market. Scenario three which dangled the 35,000 extra jobs, would see the target of 4GWs reached plus a further 8GWs for export.
It didn't mention that if all of that came from wind turbines of a similar size to the ones we have, Ireland would end up building around 4,700 turbines above the 2020 target.
The report makes a very salient point though about the merits of wind power on the economy. It looks at the wider impact of the industry. For example, it points out that substituting billions in imported fossil fuels would lift trade figures, GDP and jobs across a wide range of sectors and locations.
It argues that wind farms are an efficient source of fuel, but doesn't really get into detail about the subsidy costs, the impact that has on electricity prices and the relative inefficiency of it as a source of power.
For example, they don't generate power when the wind doesn't blow and in some places, they contribute just 25 per cent of their headline power capacity in actual electricity generation.
There is no such thing as a free lunch. If Ireland could become a major exporter of power, create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce electricity bills, with no strings attached, then it would be a no-brainer. But there are costs.
The biggest one is complaints from people about the impact the turbines have on the landscape. Nobody wants to live beside one. Many people, though not all, believe they take away from the landscape.
But if they can create employment, especially in places that really need it, then perhaps there is a trade-off to be achieved here. But how much employment do wind farms create and importantly, where are those lasting jobs actually created?
The report cites three different international academic studies on employment across Canada, the US and the EU. The differences in conclusions are so stark that it renders them pretty useless. The authors of the report say as much when they conclude:
"The number of jobs created in one region as a result of wind cannot be used in order to accurately identify the potential jobs levels elsewhere."
Part of the problem is that the more wind farms you build, the greater the efficiency and productivity, the fewer the ongoing long-term jobs.
So the authors conducted a survey. They sent a detailed questionnaire to firms working in the sector in Ireland. The figures are fascinating. Jobs are created in the installation and site preparation of wind farms; the ongoing maintenance and repair right through to the investment houses who put money into them the insurance companies that insure them as well as lawyers, banks and R&D.
For every MW of power, 2.35 jobs are created in onsite preparation and installation. On average, these jobs last for 3.2 years. The employment is created in the locality, obviously, but that doesn't mean it is all supplied from the locality. There might be plenty of diggermen available in any one area, but the guys who build the thing might be brought in from somewhere else.
Every MW of power creates just 0.09 jobs in repair, operation and maintenance. Given that Ireland has 2011MWs of wind farm capacity, this suggests only 180 operation, maintenance and repair jobs have been created. This is a tiny figure especially when these are the most local and most enduring jobs associated with the industry.
In fact, the report shows that 0.07 investor jobs are created, pointing to 140 jobs created for investors in the projects to date. According to the report, repair and maintenance jobs last the longest, with an average of 15 years while investor jobs last an average of nine years.
When these factors are taken into account, a 10MW wind farm would create just 1.3 10-year operation maintenance and repair jobs. Investor jobs created, most likely in Dublin or other cities, would be about half that at 0.64 10-year jobs for a 10MW farm.
Global wind energy comparisons are tricky around employment and efficiency etc. But surely the experience with wind energy in Scotland would be the most relevant comparison for us. It has a similar land mass, climate, landscape, population size and GDP.
Yet the whole report mentions the word Scotland in just one sentence. Under the Scottish Nationalist Party, it has been forging ahead with both onshore and offshore wind projects. In 2012, it increased wind power capacity by a massive 35 per cent to 3,808MWs. The Scots are pursuing a policy of producing the equivalent of Scotland's entire electricity needs using renewables by 2020.
When asked in the Scottish parliament how many jobs were connected directly to onshore wind, the answer from the energy minister was just 2,235. There have been 44,000 complaints to local authorities from residents. A British Royal Academy of Engineering study concluded that per unit of energy, onshore wind was twice as expensive as nuclear, gas or coal. The capacity of turbines declines to half within 15 years. And producing a wind energy equivalent to the conventional Cockenzie power plant would require 2,000 wind turbines and 300 times more land.
Wind farms are not the answer to Ireland's energy needs. They are and can continue to be an important part of the answer. The sector is already providing a useful alternative and creating investment and some jobs in the process. But we should be very cautious about ramping up our plans exponentially without full consideration of all of the implications, including the benefits, the costs, the real job numbers, the environment, and the longer-term impact on local areas.
Sunday Indo Business