Ireland will be a major player in ‘super grid’ fuelled by offshore wind, predicts Minister

Eamon Ryan

The age of “the super grid” has arrived and will play a major role in decarbonising the world and ultimately bring cheaper electricity to consumers, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan has predicted.

Ireland would play a very significant role in feeding into a super grid in Europe because it was “one of the windiest places on the planet”, he said.

It was uniquely well placed to develop offshore wind energy which would soon be scaled-up, he told a webinar hosted jointly by the Institute of International and European Affairs and the ESB on Friday.

The super grid concept, part of a global effort to decarbonise electricity by getting away from fossil fuels, would become a central feature in Ireland’s energy sector. Success was likely because current Government plans for energy and decarbonisation in effect were “agreed across the political spectrum”.

This also reflected the reality that there were limitations on land use and onshore wind energy, Mr Ryan said. Critically, it was accepted by the EU, the UK and across the world, as one of the most important ways of decarbonising economies. In addition, the offshore sector was becoming more competitive, which would force down electricity prices for citizens.

Behind other countries

It was at the stage of “starting to build this out at scale” but Ireland was behind other countries at present, though it was one of the first to deploy the technology, with a facility on Arklow Bank in the Irish Sea.

To catch up, it was critical that the planning was got right, he underlined. The new Marine Planning Development Bill would facilitate this, by de-risking major investment and providing certainty that would result in lower costs, while getting public support for developments.

The first offshore “auction” would support generation of 2.5 gigawatts of power generation in the Irish Sea by the end of 2021, he confirmed. These projects would be close to shore and near Dublin where there was high demand for electricity.

Further auctions would support wind farms off the south coast in the Celtic Sea and then be followed by the end of the decade with floating wind technology in deeper waters such as off the west coast.

The country’s port system needed to be ungraded to facilitate this development, which would happen over the next two years, the Minister said. In addition to servicing sites, ports could be key landing points for both electricity and hydrogen produced from wind power.

Realise its potential

If Ireland was to realise its potential to generate 35 GW of offshore wind energy, it would have to work out how it is stored, shipped and used. “This is the industrial development question of our time”, he added.

If this approach was shown to work, exporting the energy would be required, backed by a high degree of co-operation with other countries – “regardless of Brexit”. This would be facilitated by the use of an interconnector from Ireland to the UK and directly to Europe.

The focus would also have to be on local impacts. “We have to bring it back to thinking about how we use power in our homes,” he said and to convince citizens it is a strategy they would benefit from.

Essentially it was about electrifying homes; heating them with a clean power supply with the use of heat pumps, which also brought considerable health benefits.

Transport was also about to undergo a major transition because of electrificiation. This would be illustrated by Irish Rail soon using trains for suburban services powered by electric batteries, and the widespread use of electric vehicles.

While electric vehicles were a key part of the transition and would bring huge benefits, driving less in urban areas and increased remote working would have to play a part, he believed. “The standard office will operate on a hybrid basis . . . and long-distance commuting will decrease,” he suggested.

All big industry would have to switch from fossil fuels to using electricity, hydrogen gas or carbon capture and storage technology, Mr Ryan said.

Gas had a role in the transition, he accepted, but that could be oversold – as was the case in parts of Europe. A radical shift away from fossil fuels was needed, but he acknowledged gas was currently needed for home heating and maintaining security of energy supply.

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