Moves are now afoot in this country to put Ireland at the centre of world offshore wind energy generation by focusing on how the sector can be established here.

While attempts have been made to generate electricity through offshore wind farms in the past, the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) says that in five years time, the sector is very likely to become “a game-changer” in terms of renewable energy in this country.

According to IWEA’s head of communications and public affairs, Justin Moran, offshore turbines can be built much taller and therefore electricity can be generated “at a better rate”.

He says it is because of this very fact that these types of developments are becoming more and more popular across the world.

Moran also pointed out that the reason it is going to take another five years for the sector to become operational in this country is because of the difficulties posed around legislation, planning and associated costs.

He says that, while all of these matters will be ironed out with time, they are the reason for the stagnation in the development of this particularly type of wind energy infrastructure at the present time.

“If I build my wind farm and I have connected to the electricity grid, I then go to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) and make an application. They process the application and eventually they come back and say here is what you do,” said Moran.

“But if I build an offshore wind farm I don’t know who to go to. The CRU doesn’t process offshore applications and EirGrid can’t either. There is a difficulty here.”

Building on sovereign waters

The IWEA’s head of communications and public affairs went on to say that the planning process for developments on water is “complicated” and the legislation in respect of it centers around the Foreshore Act which, he explained, “is how you apply for planning permission to build on Irish sovereign waters off the coast”.

“About seven years ago the Government announced that it was going to change the planning system, so there is a bill called The Maritime Area Foreshore Amendment (MAFA) Bill and this will change, bring together and make more effective the system for offshore planning,” he added.

“At the moment there are guys with these offshore licences thinking to themselves: ‘What happens if this Bill comes in?’ So, at the moment, there is a wariness to move forward with any development in respect to this particular area.

There is also – at the moment – very complicated legal issues in respect of private property rights along the shoreline, and that is why we are in the situation we are in with that bill.

Moran says that organisations like the IWEA remain hopeful that MAFA will be passed by 2021.

If that happens, he adds, “there is going to be an explosion of developments”.

“There are people literally looking at Ireland wondering why we are not doing more in terms of offshore; SSE [Airtricity], for example has a couple of the biggest onshore wind parks in the country and right now their focus is on offshore because that is where they see the future.”

But there is another difficulty with offshore wind, says Moran, and this particular element centres on the costs and expenses involved in getting established.

“It is very expensive; there will be a cost to get them up and running because so much infrastructure will have to be built. Once they are built the standard turbine in Ireland will be between 3.5MW and 4MW,” he confirmed.

‘Exciting times’

Meanwhile, he pointed to what IWEA believes are “exciting times” on the way for Ireland.

“These are very exciting times [but] what we envisage is, that over the next four or five years – because we don’t have the grid connection policy, the legislation or the necessary support scheme – these offshore wind farms are not going to be built,” said Moran.

“But after that, and once they are built, it is really going to be a game changer,” he added.

Moran says too that the first offshore wind farm is always going to be the most expensive, because whoever builds the first one will also have to build the port facilities.

“Once the infrastructure on the shoreline is built, costs come down very quickly and there is not a need for as big an upfront investment as perhaps would have been initially required,” he continued.

“It is possible now to envisage a situation where SSE build the first port; then they expand it and provide a service to the other wind farms. Then Ireland becomes a much more attractive place in which to invest.

“There is at least 4 gigawatts of electricity off the Irish Sea that we know of…..we don’t know what floating wind energy will give us.”