OPINION: Certainty needed to keep Irish momentum

IRELAND: Irish onshore wind generation is enjoying a period of rapid growth but there are big funding and infrastructure challenges ahead, as Mike Tavern, technical director at engineering and environment consultancy Sweco explains.

Ireland added the most capacity relative to to its power consumption in Europe during 2017
Ireland added the most capacity relative to to its power consumption in Europe during 2017

Wind power accounts for the vast majority of the renewable energy generated in Ireland — around 80% — and there is still huge potential for growth.

This was made clear in the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI)'s 2050 Wind Energy Roadmap, launched in 2011.

It suggested onshore and offshore wind could create 20,000 direct installation and operation and maintenance jobs by 2040.

It added the potential economic value of electricity generated by wind could reach almost €15 billion by 2050.

However, there are now some big questions as to how this will be sustained in the years ahead.

According to the recent figures, released by WindEurope, Ireland's online wind capacity grew by 426MW in 2017, with its cumulative total now standing at 3.1GW.

What next?

Since 2007, the mechanism the Irish government has used to incentivise wind power development is a feed-in tariff known as Refit, which was succeeded by Refit 2 in 2012.

In order to qualify, projects needed to be completed by the end of 2017 and the huge surge in new capacity coming online last year was a direct result.

This deadline has since been extended to the end of 2019 — a decision that has come as a big relief to the many schemes around the country that struggled to hit the original cutoff date due to unforeseen hold-ups.

Looking beyond 2019, it is vital that a new support programme is put in place as soon as possible so that the encouraging growth we have seen does not come to a halt.

The Irish renewables market as a whole is chasing an ambitious capacity target.

By 2020, 16% of energy in Ireland needs to be from renewable sources for the EU target to be met. In 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the figure stood at 8.7%.

But, if further schemes are to be developed to meet the overall target, it is vital that investors are given clarity on what the replacement for Refit 2 will be.

The model that has emerged as a frontrunner is an auction-based system known as RESS (Renewable Energy Support Scheme) in which suppliers will be able to bid for capacity every two years, in much the same way as Contracts for Difference (CFD) work in the UK.

This approach is gaining ground across Europe and has many advantages, offering a strong combination of certainty and design flexibility while allowing the price to adjust with the market.

This auction-based system would probably favour onshore wind power, given it has one of the lowest levelised cost of energy (LCOE) values of all generation types.

The results of the recent consultation process on the scheme are due soon.

It will be key for the government to act on the outcome rapidly in order to deliver the assurance to investors that will underpin the next phase of development.

Further ahead

Looking to the longer term, another key challenge will be re-engineering Ireland's electricity distribution network to facilitate a new model based on distributed rather than centralised generation.

For onshore wind to develop as a sizeable proportion of the nation's capacity, the infrastructure available to transport power around rural areas where much of the generation will take place will be essential.

The government needs to start thinking carefully about the level of funding that will be needed to support its medium and long-term goals and ensure this is properly planned for.

Given its favourable weather conditions and the availability of space, Ireland is better placed than many nations to capitalise on the affordable energy offered by onshore wind.

But the time is now for the government to put its cards on the table and commit to supporting wind farms into the future.

Mike Tavern is technical director at engineering and environment consultancy Sweco

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