Minister gives green light to project -- Ireland's 520 MW debut with Enron

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The Irish government has given the go-ahead to the world's largest offshore wind farm to be built off Ireland's east coast. Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Frank Fahey, signed the foreshore lease -- effectively granting planning permission -- to allow developer Eirtricity to build a 520 MW wind farm of 200 turbines. The site is the Arklow Bank, a sandbank ten kilometres off the coast of Arklow, County Wicklow.

The project will cost EUR 630 million and meet the needs of 400 industrial users or 500,000 homes, avoiding 1.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Fahey says the signing of the lease heralds the dawning of a new age of clean green energy. The lease is the first to be awarded in Ireland for an offshore wind farm. The minister claims the Arklow Banks project is the most ambitious offshore wind energy development ever undertaken and will, when completed, have three times the combined capacity of all offshore wind farms currently in production in the world. It would also contribute a considerable revenue to the state of over EUR 1.9 million a year within five years of completion. He adds that the foreshore lease contains provision to increase the output of the wind farm and vary the number of turbines, subject to his consent. "Any increase in output will have a pro rata impact upon the rentals and royalties payable to the state," he says.

Eirtricity has worked for over two years on developing the project, including consulting with local and national interests. The company claims the project has "huge" local support, with not a single objection to its application. The Arklow Bank runs north to south and is 24 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide. The water depth ranges from five to 25 metres. Eirtricity's environmental assessment shows the sandbank is devoid of resident marine life due to the movement of the sand. It is mostly avoided by local fishermen because of the rapidly changing tides. The company believes the turbine foundations will stabilise the bank and could encourage fauna and flora to colonise the site.

Four phases

The wind farm is to be built in four phases up to 2005. "The signing of the lease clears the way for the commencement of phase one of this project -- the installation of an initial sixty megawatts," says Eirtricity's Eddie O'Connor. He warns, however, that the project can only proceed in the presence of a clear government policy to support offshore wind. He commends the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources on its foreshore policy for Irish wind power, which is more advanced than in other European countries, but laments the lack of a proper market structure for Ireland.

"The key next step is for the government to create a business environment that encourages investment in offshore wind energy. Without support in areas such as grid connection costs and capital relief, Ireland risks losing the lead it has now established in offshore wind energy to countries such as the UK where massive subsidies are targeted at offshore wind."

Work on building phase one -- which will cost some EUR 100 million -- could start in the spring, with first generation in the autumn. But Pamela Walsh from Eirtricity stresses that the timetable depends on a number of issues being resolved, including the grid connection for the first phase. The company is also waiting to learn from government what incentives and support will be made available to offshore wind.

Front runner as wind turbine supplier for phase one is understood to be Enron Wind -- despite the difficulties of the parent company. Walsh confirms that Enron Wind had pre-qualified to supply the turbines. "We have had a look at the finances of Enron Wind and our understanding is that they are very well ring-fenced," she comments.

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