If you thought the official foot dragging that has left Dublin airport at the mercy of rogue drone operators was embarrassing, the State’s lackadaisical approach to the development of floating offshore wind platforms is threatening to become a national catastrophe.
For some years now, the potential of offshore wind to be the biggest economic opportunity since the foundation of the State has been widely touted but it is beginning to look as if that potential is about to be squandered because of a lack of political drive and official pigheadedness.
The Programme for Government agreed between the three Coalition partners in June 2020 set ambitious targets for the development of floating offshore energy but to date the Department of Energy has failed to sign off on the framework that is required to enable the process to begin. Given that Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is the Minister responsible, the delay is inexplicable as well as inexcusable.
None of the consortiums that have been established to develop offshore wind have even received permission to begin the surveys necessary to identify the best locations for wind energy platforms out in the Atlantic. The long-overdue Marine Area Regulatory Authority was finally established in recent months but the framework to govern the planning process has still not emerged.
While wind energy companies here have been waiting for three years for permission simply to start survey work, other countries have moved decisively to develop their offshore wind resources. Portugal, the UK and Norway are already well on the way to opening a licensing round for the best development sites in their Atlantic waters.
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“There is a real danger that by the time we get our act together all the big investment will have gone elsewhere and our potential for wind energy will never be realised,” said one frustrated investor, who said it was inexcusable that such a great opportunity for the country was being squandered. “Ireland is a basket case,” was one potential foreign investor who has opted out because of the delays told me.
Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher attempted to highlight the issue this week, saying Ireland risks failing to capitalise on its offshore wind generation potential unless a whole range of problems are tackled quickly. They include skills shortage in the country’s planning and regulatory authorities, the lack of deepwater port facilities and the low interconnector capacity to other electricity markets.
Kelleher, a member of the European Parliament’s Environment, Climate Action and Public Health (Envi) Committee, made the comments following a number of meetings with stakeholders in the wind energy sector. We hear about Ireland’s potential as a wind energy superpower all the time, but there are some pretty fundamental challenges that Ireland must address before it can fully utilise its potential and meet its 2030 targets, and eventually its net zero targets in 2050.
Failure to recruit
Among the problems identified by Kelleher are the failure to recruit enough planners with the appropriate experience, as well as failing to recruit marine biologists and engineers. Another serious problem is that Belfast is the only deepwater port on the island capable of facilitating the construction of offshore wind turbines. Unless other ports are developed, Irish wind farms will be constructed in France. Even if Ireland does manage to produce excess wind-generated electricity, we will not have the capacity to transport it for sale to other markets unless we urgently build additional connectors.
“Now is the time for Minister Ryan to proceed with urgency on these matters if Ireland is to capitalise on its potential off its coasts. I don’t get a sense that his Department is focusing on these crucial and fundamental issues, and that is worrying,” said Kelleher.
When returning to the Taoiseach’s office in December, Leo Varadkar identified climate change as a top priority. He needs to make a direct intervention to ensure that the Department of Energy and all the relevant agencies step up to the mark and respond to the situation with sufficient urgency.
One of the success stories of Enda Kenny’s first administration was the way in which unemployment was brought down from over 15 per cent of the workforce at the height of the financial crisis to less than 5 per cent in the course of that government’s lifetime.
One reason was that the Taoiseach’s office drove the “Action Plan for Jobs” and ensured that all the relevant departments and state agencies were held accountable for delivering on their targets. “Having to go over to the Taoiseach’s office once a month to account for what they had done, or failed to do, galvanised officials and produced spectacular results,” a political advisor to Kenny told me at the time.
Ireland can still become a massive producer of clean energy if it is able to harness its vast wind resources, but it will take a similar sense of drive and commitment from politicians and officials for that to be realised. Varadkar should take inspiration from the way his predecessor a century ago, WT Cosgrave, faced with the multiple challenges of building a country wrecked by Civil War, embraced the wildly ambitious Ardnacrusha hydroelectric scheme and set Ireland on the road to industrial development.