Ireland will need a fair wind if 2030 offshore targets are to be met

There was a tangible air of celebration in government circles earlier this month after the announcement of the results of Ireland’s first offshore wind auction.

Four developers emerged with contracts to supply power from planned wind farms off the Irish coast following the competitive process overseen by EirGrid and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

The contracts for the four wind farms – Codling Wind Park, the Dublin Array the and North Sea Irish Array off the east coast, and Sceirde Rocks off the coast of Galway – will deliver a planned total capacity of just over 3GW.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications was quick to let us know that the price of €86.05 per megawatt hour (MWh) is among the best prices achieved anywhere in the world for a first-time offshore wind energy auction. The phrase ‘first-time auction’ is key here because that price is significantly higher than the €65MWh European average for wind power – and around twice the £37.50 MWh that suppliers in Scotland were awarded following an auction last summer.

Nonetheless, the prices have been well received for a country whose offshore wind sector is still very much in its infancy.

That may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has noticed wind turbines off the coast of Wicklow over the past 20 years, but there has been no offshore wind development since that facility – the Arklow Bank Wind Park – was commissioned in 2004.

Turning potential into reality

Ireland is estimated to have more than 50GW of accessible offshore wind energy potential. That’s enough energy to power 37.5 million homes – or the carbon equivalent of removing 10 million cars from the road.

Think how far some of that would go towards meeting Ireland’s commitments to achieve a 51% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – and for the country to be carbon neutral by 2050. Yet, currently just 25MW of offshore wind energy is produced in Irish waters.

The presence of more than 300 onshore wind farms with a capacity of 4.3GW makes clear that energy providers, regulators, and successive governments recognise the importance of wind energy – but it also makes all the more disappointing the lack of progress offshore.

As countries such as China (25.5GW), the UK (13.6GW), Germany (8GW), and the Netherlands (3GW) have been harnessing the renewable bounty off their coast, until this month the talk in Ireland has always been about potential rather than reality.

Supply chain challenges

The recent auction results are a significant step in changing that – and it is to be welcomed that the winners can now progress their plans – but with a government Climate Action Plan commitment to develop 5GW of offshore wind energy by 2030 (and a massive 37GW by 2050) time is not on Ireland’s side.

Offshore wind facilities are bigger than those found onshore, they are more complex and expensive to build, and there are fewer companies with the capability to engineer and install the infrastructure. Ireland is only now joining the queue in this supply chain and could find it tough to meet the 2030 targets.

According to offshore wind energy expert Úna Brosnan, Head of Offshore Ireland at Mainstream Renewable Power, a recent shift in government policy on developing offshore wind facilities – including running the next round of auctions in advance of awarding seabed rights – has caused uncertainty among wind energy developers and could exacerbate these supply chain challenges

Speaking on the latest episode of Power & Responsibility – The Data Centre Podcast, Úna said: “A number of [companies in the] supply chain have had to go elsewhere off the back of the U-turn in policy in Ireland. Some projects have had to pause their development activities and have needed to move to other jurisdictions just while there is clarification coming on some of the policy.

“It does have big impacts on industry, so it is important that we have clear visible pathways to realising these projects and keep confidence in our investors because we’re competing at a global level now – it’s not just about realising Irish targets, it’s about realising global targets and we’re working in a very limited supply chain at the minute.”

Grid constraints

It will have to be all hands to the pump to try and ensure these projects announced this month are delivered in as timely a fashion as possible – not least because they leave us a long way short of the 2030 target of 5GW.

The second offshore wind auction is planned for 2024-2025 and delivery in 2029, but there are other projects which could take us closer to the target sooner.

One of these is the Arklow Bank Wind Park Phase 2. Echelon Data Centres has an agreement in place with SSE Renewables to develop a joint 220kV substation at its DUB20 campus in Arklow, Co Wicklow, and ensure that up to 800MW of green energy can plug into the electricity grid.

The development of joint grid infrastructure projects is just one way that data centre operators can help work towards helping countries reach their emission reduction targets.

They allow for data centres to be directly powered by renewables, which is not only attractive for tenants seeking to reduce their carbon footprint but could ease pressure on a grid system which doesn’t yet have the capacity to match Ireland’s renewables ambition.

This was an issue raised by Leo Quinn, Senior Offshore Development Manager with Mainstream Renewable Power, on the latest episode of Power & Responsibility – The Data Centre Podcast.

Leo said: “In the context of renewables for 2030, we’ve got the offshore, but we’ve also got plans to connect 8GW of solar and 5GW of onshore wind. If you add those all those into a system with a peak capacity of about 5.5 to 6GW, it’s fairly easy to say, ‘Well, what are we going to do with all this power?’.

“There’s a lot of talk with [EirGrid CEO] Mark Foley about exporting it but exporting requires interconnectors… these things take time and currently we have minimal plans and minimal policy to support the development of interconnectors to embrace those export ambitions.”

Ireland is showing great ambition when it comes to renewables but the ability to realise those ambitions is dependent on a mix of solutions.

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