Emerald Isle goes green? Update on renewable energy in Ireland

In recent years the Republic of Ireland has experienced not only an unprecedented economic boom, but also a rapid increase in its energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions. Now efforts are underway to tap Ireland’s excellent renewable resources, reducing oil imports and carbon emissions in the process. By Alasdair Cameron.

Over the last two decades, the Republic of Ireland has undergone an extraordinary transformation. From being one of the poorest countries in Western Europe it has grown to become the eighth richest country in the world (per capita), and is scarcely recognisable to those who knew it twenty or thirty years ago. While this economic expansion has been achieved largely without heavy industrialization, the rapid increase in the standard of living has seen car ownership, household emissions and general consumption rise, while the public transport and energy networks have remained largely unchanged. Despite large increases in energy efficiency, between 1990 and 2004, final energy consumption rose from around 7 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) to over 12 Mtoe. At the same time, domestic energy supplies (mainly peat and natural gas) have decreased by half, and carbon emissions have risen by 30% on 1990 levels. This has combined to produce the now familiar global situation of the economic need to cut energy imports, and at the same time tackle climate change.

Finally however, moves are being made to develop Ireland’s considerable renewable energy resources. In 2004 the Renewable Energy Development Group (REDG) was established by the government to identify how Ireland could meets its obligation to generate 13.2% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2010, as required by the Kyoto Protocol and laid down in European Directive. By the end of 2004, 5.2% of Ireland’s electricity was derived from renewable sources. In its initial report, REDG estimated that around 1433 MW of new renewable electricity would be needed by 2009, of which roughly 1100 MW would come from wind energy, 240 MW from hydro (most of which is already in operation), 92 MW of bioenergy and 1 MW of ocean energy.

Figure 1. Total installed wind power capacity in the Republic of Ireland 1997-2010. Source: Sustainable Energy Ireland, with predictions by BTM Consult ATM

Following on from the REDG report, in May 2006, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (MCMNR) launched an initiative to triple the amount of renewable energy generation installed in Ireland. The Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff scheme (REFIT), which was originally introduced in May 2005, was extended to cover 55 projects totalling over 600 MW of new capacity (‘Gate’ 2 – see section on grid access below). This would bring the total installed renewable energy capacity to 1469 MW by 2010, equivalent to 1 million homes, and fulfiling the 13.2% requirement.

The REFIT programme, which replaced the AER scheme previously in use, provides a dedicated payment for each kilowatt hour of electricity fed into the grid, depending on the source. Currently the feed-in rates are set at €0.057/kWh for large wind, €0.059/kWh for small wind, €0.07/kWh for hydro and landfill gas and finally €0.072/kWh for other biomass. However, proposed projects must still apply to be covered by the REFIT, as there is limited grid access. Indeed as will be discussed below, grid access is one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of renewable energy in Ireland. This has led to batches of renewable energy being licensed in certain rounds or ‘Gates’ (see section on grid integration below).

Wind power

Ireland is a breezy place, particularly along the coasts, and, as such, has excellent potential for wind energy generation. In addition to its resources, its small population and relatively flat topography (barring a few areas) make it a good prospect for onshore wind. This is borne out by the expectations of the REDG report in which wind is to provide the vast majority of renewable electricity generating capacity.

850 kW turbines at the Black Banks wind farm, Ireland vestas

By the end of 2005 around 496 MW of wind had been installed in Ireland, including 25 MW offshore at Arklow Bank. By the end of 2006, Danish wind consultants BTM Consult predicted that this would have risen to 750 MW, representing an increase of around 250 MW. Figure 1 shows the growth of the Irish wind sector over the last ten years, and predicted growth to 2010.

Offshore wind in Ireland
Ireland has excellent offshore wind resources, particularly along the south and south-eastern coast. In 2003 a major study was launched to look at the development of offshore wind energy. This came up with two separate scenarios (high and low), under which it was estimated that 500-670 MW of offshore wind might be installed by 2020. In light of the size of some of the projects proposed, this is now considered rather unambitious, with potential for a great deal more development in future.

In 2000 six licences were awarded to a variety of consortia to investigate the possibility of developing offshore wind farms off Ireland’s east coast. Of these, the only one which has advanced significantly is the Arklow Bank development (more below), although some of the others, such as the 250 MW Kish Banks project, are beginning to see increased activity.

As mentioned above, Ireland’s first offshore wind farm at Arklow Bank was completed in 2003 and officially opened in 2005. A joint project between GE Energy and Airtricity (see below), the 25 MW wind farm is the first step in a much larger offshore development, and was used as a testing ground for GE’s 3.6 MW offshore turbine (a similar but slightly modified turbine is due to be installed at the 108 MW Gunfleet Sands project in the UK.) Stage 2 of Arklow Bank is currently being developed by Airtricity and Acciona Energy and is likely to have a total capacity of around 500 MW. Work is not expected to be complete until after 2010.

Developers and manufacturers
Until recently Ireland’s turbine market was heavily dominated by Vestas, but in the last few years it has begun to open up, with companies such as Nordex, GE, Enercon and Gamesa increasingly winning sales.

Although it has no indigenous wind turbine manufacturing capability, the Republic of Ireland is home to Airtricity, an ambitious and rapidly growing wind power developer and electricity supplier. Part-owned by Irish waste management and renewable energy company NTR, Airtricity currently operates more than 200 MW of wind in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In addition it claims a portfolio of over 6000 MW under development in Ireland, the UK and the USA. As well as its activities onshore, Airtricity is working on some ambitious offshore wind projects, including the 500 MW Greater Gabbard project with Fluor in the United Kingdom (part of the Crown Estate’s Round 2 licensing procedure), developments in the Netherlands and Germany, and a much more ambitious pan-European Supergrid which would stretch down the North Sea and the west coast of Europe. This would allow electricity to be traded across the continent, cashing in on the assumption that ‘the wind is always blowing somewhere’. While this scheme is a long way off, Airtricity is in the process of trying to secure financing and permitting for the first stages of a €22 billion, 10,000 MW offshore wind farm off the east of England.

Wave and tidal power

Ireland possesses one of the greatest wave power resources in Europe, and perhaps the world. Indeed, Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) recently completed a detailed assessment of Ireland’s practical wave energy resource (wave energy resource within a 100 km distance from the coastline) and estimated it to be 24 TWh per annum, sufficient to supply 94% of Ireland’s total electricity requirements. Tidal energy could supply a further 6% of the country’s needs. This energy is made of greater value by the fact that wave energy is not concurrent with wind power, reducing the need for back-up (tidal is even more predictable still, providing reliable base-load).

In recent years the diversity of companies active in the Irish wind market has begun to increase nordex

Exploiting wave and tidal energy in Ireland is one of the goals of the Marine Institute and also of the SEI’s Renewable Energy RD&D programme, but until recently only around €1,200,000 had been invested in the sector (since 1994). Some of these programmes have involved teaming up with universities such University College Cork or Trinity College Dublin, while others have co-operated with companies such as MTL or Clearpower to collect wave data or build research facilities, such as wave tanks. In order to take marine energy in Ireland to the next stage, a four-phase plan has been developed. The first phase of the marine development aims to develop large-scale prototypes and technical leadership. This is expected to receive funding of around €4.9 million. The next phase from 2008-2010 will focus on grid-connected pre-commercial device. Support will focus on grid-connection and electricity price support and is expected to be worth around €10.5 million. From 2011-2015, phase three envisages development of a 10 MW project, while post 2016 it is expected that this technology will be commercially viable and require no further support.

It is hoped that structured and phased investment strategy could see Ireland begin to deploy ocean power devices within the next decade, although substantial exploitation is not expected before 2020. The amounts of money which are being made available for research and development, however, are still quite modest, particularly given that the value of the offshore marine sector in Ireland is expected to be worth €180 million by 2020, rising to €780 million by 2025.

Biomass currently plays a small role in the Irish electricity sector, with most installations attached to sawmills and wood processing plants wartsila

Things are progressing though, and Ireland is home to several start-up companies attempting to develop commercial wave devices and associated equipment. These include Wavebob, a technology developed by William Dick and Clearpower Technology, which has attracted support from a range of organizations, including the Marine Institute in Cork, the UK-based Carbon Trust and the Norwegian shipping company Fred Olsen.

The Wavebob device is designed to be a lightweight and economical ‘point’ energy converter, which the designers hope will be cheaper than other floating buoy devices coming on to the market. The full scale buoy will have an output of around 1 MW. Currently the device is about to begin 1:20 scale testing in Spiddal, County Galway.

The WaveBob device being prepared for testing in Galway monasette / flickr

Another company, Open Hydro, has offices in Dublin and Florida, and is developing underwater turbines for harnessing tidal power. Currently the company is conducting testing at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, in the United Kingdom.

Biomass and biofuels

More than any other renewable energy sector, bioenergy involves a whole host of other interest groups and impacts heavily on the agriculture, conservation and transportation sectors and in 2003 the Bioenergy Strategy Group (BSG) was set up to consider policy options and support mechanisms for promoting bioenergy in Ireland.

Currently bioenergy makes only a very small contribution to Ireland’s electricity needs, although it does have a substantial share of the domestic heating market. To encourage more modern and efficient use of bioenergy, the BSG has outlined a number of strategies which should be implemented. Key measures identified include providing grants for renewable heating projects and a feed-in tariff for biomass-derived electricity. These have since been introduced. Other measures suggested included co-ordinating marketing and promotion, research and training.

To help target this support, the report highlighted a number of priority areas of biomass usage which could be promoted. These included co-firing in coal and peat plants, using industrial wood residue in CJP plants, anaerobic digestion, landfill gas, wood heat in buildings and energy crops.

It is hoped that these measures will help to increase biomass’ share of the overall energy mix to 3.4% by 2010 and 4.8% by 2020.

Solid biomass
In 2004 solid biomass accounted for the bulk of Ireland’s renewable energy use, representing 57% of the total renewable energy consumption (largely in domestic fires and boilers).

The majority of solid biomass is used in the wood processing industry for powering board manufacturing plants, sawmills and joineries. However in 2004, Ireland got its first biomass fuelled CHP plant, at Grainger’s Sawmill in Cork. Altogether, use of solid biomass has increased by 75% since 1990, with growth in 2004 reaching 14%. The use of pellets too is expected to grow, with grants now available for the installation of large-scale boilers, typically in the range 60­-1000 kW. So far however there is little in the way of support or infrastructure for delivering pellets to residential customers, and this could constrain take-up on the domestic front.

In 2005, oil represented 56% of Ireland’s total primary energy requirement, all of which had to be imported. In order to help reduce this dependence, (and in response to the 2003 EU biofuels directive, which requires member states to source 5.75% of road transport fuels from biofuels by 2010), in 2005 the Irish government set up a scheme to grant excise (tax) relief for the production of 16 million litres of biofuels – just over 14,000 tonnes. As a result, eight individual biofuels projects were established for the sale and distribution of the fuel. However, this failed to stimulate large-scale production and by the end of 2005, the amount of biofuels sold in the Irish market was only 0.1% of total transport fuel consumption. As a result, the European Commission issued a letter of formal notice against Ireland. Following this, in 2006, Ireland announced an incentive scheme of excise relief to achieve 2.2% fuel substitution by 2008. This took the form of a scheme whereby companies would submit applications to the government for a portion of excise relief, up to a combined national total of €200 million until 2010. The government then picked those companies that it thought would be most likely to build biofuel plants, based on answers to a questionnaire submitted by the companies. While this scheme has caused consternation in the industry, it has so far been sufficient to remove the threat of formal action by the Commission.

In 2006, Bioverda, a bioenergy division of NTR, and one of Ireland’s leading biofuels developers, announced that it would be investing €50 million in a new biofuel production facility in Cork harbour, in addition to its existing biofuel developments in the UK, Spain, Germany and the United States. Once completed in 2008, this Irish facility should be able to produce around 200,000 tonnes of biodiesel per year.

As with all biofuels of this kind, one of the most important considerations will be the source of the feedstock. With its large agricultural sector Ireland would seem well placed to develop local supplies (particularly rapeseed), but as with other European countries economics may dictate that imported feedstocks be cheaper and more reliable. For its part, Bioverda has indicated that it intends to source as much feedstock as possible from local rapeseed suppliers, with the balance made up from oils imported from ‘sustainable’ sources in South America. 

Following its decision to build in Cork however, Bioverda has not been awarded any excise relief by the Irish government (as mentioned previously, the fuel duty was awarded to companies based on answers to a written questionnaire, and Bioverda was not successful in its application). The net effect is that Bioverda is currently locked out of the Irish marketplace, as without excise relief, it will not be able to sell any of its product. As a result, all of the proposed facility’s product will be sold in the UK and other European markets.

Thus, while development is certainly taking place, representatives of the biofuels industry are calling for the Ireland’s biofuels target to be increased beyond 5.75%, and the incentive scheme simplified to include any company that sells biofuels in the country. Only then, they claim, will Ireland be able to develop a self-sustaining and competitive biofuels industry.


Although growing fast, the amount of solar thermal heating installed in Ireland remains negligible, while the quantity of photovoltaics installed is almost zero. With this in mind, PV has not been included in the REFIT programme and there seems little chance of the situation improving. For solar thermal however the future looks a little brighter. Increasing awareness and high fuel prices have led to a marked pick up in sales of domestic hot water systems, with current growth rates averaging about 50% per year, albeit from a very low starting point.

Grid issues

One of the principal problems with the development of renewable energy in Ireland has been the lack of suitable grid infrastructure, including undersea connections to the United Kingdom. This has made it difficult to authorise large-scale renewable development, while at the same time guaranteeing transmission quality. Indeed until 2003, Ireland had placed a moratorium on the further development of wind energy, pending new grid regulations. The local grid operator – ESBNG – had raised concerns about the stability of the grid following the rapid growth of wind. However following consultation with the wind industry, a series of new grid codes were implemented and the moratorium was lifted in December 2004. Throughout the course of 2005 applications were made to connect future projects to the grid, of which 33 projects totalling 370 MW were successful – ‘Gate 1’. After this process, roughly 3000 MW of wind projects were waiting in the pipeline, indicating the amount of interest in developing wind in Ireland. As mentioned above ‘Gate 2’ has now been opened and a further 600 MW has been cleared for connection. Despite this progress, it is clear that the lack of a suitable grid system is a barrier to massive wind development in Ireland.

To ease the situation, plans are currently underway to develop a 1000 MW underwater connector to the United Kingdom, allowing the easy trade of electricity between countries. This will not only allow Ireland to export green electricity to the UK, but will also allow it to import clean energy back. This is particularly interesting as weather systems tend to move in off the Atlantic, heading eastwards across Ireland and then the UK. Thus a good system of electricity transfer will allow the best use of the winds that blow in across the British Isles.

Alasdair Cameron is Assistant Editor of Renewable Energy World
e-mail: rew@pennwell.com

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