Ireland shapes up for a high wind future

In Ireland, steep gas prices make exploitation of the country's plentiful wind energy resource an attractive economic option for electricity generation. But as an island it is unable to call on power supplies from neighbours in times of need, making heavy reliance on a variable resource a potentially unacceptable risk. Nonsense, says energy minister Eamon Ryan, who believes Ireland will show the world what can be done

As one of the windiest countries in the world, yet with few indigenous fossil fuel resources, Ireland has ambitions for one of the highest penetrations of wind energy anywhere. Even with a relatively isolated island grid network, minister in charge of energy Eamon Ryan has his sights set high. An "all-island grid study" shows the island to be capable of integrating enough renewable energy into its power system to provide 42% of all its electricity needs from green sources by 2020 without jeopardising security of supply. Most of that would come from wind power. The Irish government's official goal for renewable energy use is 33% by the same year.

The high level of wind power poses technical challenges for the operation of the National Transmission System, Ryan concedes. "It also requires a whole new approach to the design and operation of the transmission system -- one requiring significant development and investment." Forty-two per cent electricity from renewables requires 650 kilometres of new transmission lines at a cost of just over EUR 1 billion, EUR 655 million for the Republic of Ireland and EUR 352 million for the UK province of Northern Ireland.

Last year wind supplied 3.4 GWh in Ireland from 806 MW of installed capacity, or just over 6% of electricity supply. Transmission system operator Eirgrid states that 14 GWh will be needed from renewable sources in 2020 to meet the 33% target. Meantime, the country is on track to meet its interim goal of 15% by 2010. This could be met by 1350 MW of wind, says Eirgrid.

And it should be achieved with ease. In addition to existing capacity, over 400 MW of projects have signed grid connection agreements, grid connection offers have just been sent out by Eirgrid and distribution system operator ESB Networks to 1300 MW of wind projects. Eirgrid expects a significant proportion of this new capacity to be operating by the end of 2010. A further 2700 MW is in the queue for connection offers.

The problems

But according to the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) a number of issues are slowing the deployment of wind in Ireland. This was highlighted by the installation in 2007 of just 58 MW of new wind capacity. "That really put Ireland off track from meeting our targets," says IWEA's Michael Walsh.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle are the low prices on offer for wind power under Ireland's new system of fixed purchase rates. IWEA is pushing hard for them to be raised. The price was set about three to four years ago and despite being index-linked has not kept pace with the rapid rise in costs of wind turbines and other infrastructure, Walsh points out. This is one of the reasons he cites for the poor build rate. He detects more activity this year, with 180 MW being talked about for new developments in 2008, but until the level of support improves they are building in a vacuum, he says.

Grid access is another thorny problem that IWEA is discussing with ESB Networks, Eirgrid and energy watchdog the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER). "The current connection agreement rules allocate most of the risks to the wind farm developer, including some that would be better carried by the asset owner," says Walsh. He is also concerned about the increasing level of constraints imposed by the system operators on wind.

Slowing things down further, site planning permits -- granted for a period of five years -- are expiring on projects while they wait in the lengthy queue for grid connection. Some local authorities are willing to extend site permits, Walsh says, but others require developers to re-submit a fresh planning application. He would like to see clearer guidelines from government on the criteria for extending planning consent for projects in the lengthy queue for grid connections.

Nonetheless, he remains optimistic. Ryan appears determined to address the obstacles to wind in Ireland. "We believe there will be movement on that front in the near future," says Walsh. The minister is already pushing forward with a number of initiatives designed to smooth Ireland's transition towards a high wind future. His latest measure -- to allow more wind energy developers to build their own connections to the grid network -- has been welcomed by the industry.

Larger projects connecting to the high voltage network are already able to construct their grid connections. Now Ryan proposes extending the same right to generators down to the distribution network level of 38 kV. "This will give developers of smaller renewable projects the option to build the connecting network, subject to ESB Networks/CER approved standards," he says.

The new policy, known as "contestability," allows developers of wind power projects typically 10 to 20 MW in size to complete construction of their grid connection to tighter time-scales and at lower cost than the incumbent wires company, ESB, can sometimes achieve. "It's a very welcome move; we just hope it happens quickly," comments Walsh, who would like to see it extended even further to encompass even smaller developers. One of the risks wind generators in Ireland encounter in building their projects, he explains, is having turbines up and ready to go, but the connection delayed so that the wind farm cannot yet begin generating an income. "This move allows developers to control that risk," he says.

Cost iniquities

Ireland's largest wind developer, Airtricity, has experienced delays of up to seven months in hooking its projects up to the wires. The company's Mark Ennis says that for one of its bigger projects a quote from an independent service provider came in at half the cost quoted by ESB.

An ESB spokesman points out that one of the major causes of delays in connecting wind farms is the length of time it takes to secure planning consent for new lines, some of which can be up to 30 kilometres long. Indeed, opposition to new overhead power lines in Ireland has grown in recent years. In 2006 landowners near Bantry in Cork obstructed ESB from building a 14 kilometre line to connect Ballybane wind farm in west Cork to their local substation despite a series of High Court injunctions.

With ever more reinforcements needed to accommodate increasing amounts of wind power -- and opposition to overhead cables also set to increase -- Ryan has called for a study into the relative merits of overhead and underground cables. "It is clear that there are enormous challenges building transmission lines across the country and my department has a review underway on these challenges," he says.

And cost benefits

Ennis welcomes the debate. Overhead cables can take as much as eight to ten years to plan and build, he says. "If you go underground, you can do it in half that time, although we accept that there is a higher cost." But the benefits of wind gaining earlier access to the system should not be ignored. "Renewable energy on the system actually reduces the cost of electricity to the consumer." He points out that a study, conducted soon after the single electricity market for the island of Ireland came into force, showed that when the wind is blowing it reduces the cost of electricity to the pool by 7%. "Our projections show that if Ireland reaches 30% wind penetration, energy costs would reduce by 13%."

World leader

A project to improve security of the system -- and allow Irish wind-generated power to be exported to mainland Britain -- is a 500 MW east-west interconnector across the Irish Sea. Ryan says he is giving priority to legislation to pave the way for the link that will run from Woodland in Meath to Deeside in north Wales. To be developed and operated by Eirgrid, it should be complete by 2012 at the latest, he says. Seabed surveys are under way.

Meantime, Eirgrid is consulting on its Transmission Development Strategy 2025 due to be published in mid 2008 which will support increased generation from renewables -- particularly wind. The transmission system operator, these days no longer regarded by the industry as the same obstacle to wind's progress as ESB, now appears keen to tackle the technical challenges thrown up by a variable source of power supply. Indeed, its renewable energy policy states: "Eirgrid intends to be a world leader in the facilitation of renewables."

Attitude change

Some attribute this change in attitude to its establishment in 2006 as a state-owned organisation independent of the ESB. Others point to the different culture under its new senior management team headed by chief executive Dermot Byrne.

"A lot of the work we have been doing is at the leading edge internationally, says Eirgrid's Michael Kelly. Ireland has been the first country to develop a grid code for wind and as an island system has faced many of the challenges in integrating wind earlier than most other national systems, he says.

Energy consultant David Milborrow, an advisor to IWEA, agrees that Ireland provides valuable lessons for large-scale penetration of wind on small systems. He points out that the country's ambitions could see it overtake Denmark in the proportion of wind on the system. Situated at the far end of the European gas network, Ireland's high gas prices make the country a good economic proving ground for wind, he says. "Ireland provides one of the best examples in the industrialised world of wind proving its credentials as a commercially effective generation source."

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