Energy minister sees wind future -- Ireland looks at 42% wind

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The island of Ireland could meet 42% of its electricity demand from renewable energy by 2020 without running into technical or economic barriers, a government study has discovered. A collaboration between the Irish government and Northern Ireland executive, the study is the first comprehensive analysis of the ability of the transmission network in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to absorb large amounts of renewable-generated power -- most of which is expected to come from wind. The costs and benefits in increasing renewables' share of the electricity mix are included in the report.

The initiative follows November's opening of an all-island single competitive electricity market covering both jurisdictions. Ireland's current domestic target for electricity from renewables by 2020 is 33%, while the more densely-populated Northern Ireland has a 12% by 2012 target. "This study shows that we can do more than reach our renewable energy targets -- we can surpass them," says Ireland's energy minister, Eamon Ryan. "This will be one of the highest levels of renewable electricity in the world." It would present significant savings on Ireland's imported fossil fuel bill as well as new employment and business opportunities, he says.

Commissioned in 2005, the study was divided into work streams, each undertaken by different teams of consultants including Irish electricity supply board ESB International, the Danish national laboratory at Risø, Dutch renewables consultancy Ecofys, and TNEI of Manchester, UK. The study looks at five energy portfolios for generating electricity up to 2020. It finds that a penetration of up to 42% renewables, with wind as the principal form of generation, is technically feasible. This scenario assumes 6000 MW of wind plus 645 MW of other renewables. Compared with the business as usual scenario, it provides 25% savings in carbon dioxide emissions.

The 42% penetration of renewables would require some 845 kilometres of network reinforcement at a cost of around £1 billion. But given likely public resistance, planning and permitting these new transmission lines for completion by 2020 represents a major challenge for network operators, the report warns.

Limited costs

Additional costs to consumers would be similar under all the scenarios, varying at most by 7% between the highest cost portfolio (high renewables penetration) and the lowest cost portfolio (the reference scenario).

Northern Ireland energy minister Nigel Dodds says the research is of "international importance." "Being on the periphery of Europe, with access to plentiful renewable energy resources, presents Northern Ireland with a unique challenge," he says. "[The study] offers vital information which will enable us to plan for a future in which electricity generated from renewable sources will play an increasingly important role."

Reaching the 42% will not be easy, cautions Ryan. "This is a highly complex task. Our electricity systems will require major investment to cater for wind, wave and other renewables. For the Republic alone, additional investment of over EUR 650 million will be necessary to reinforce over 600 kilometres of the electricity transmission network. Corresponding investment required from private industry will be in the order of EUR 9 billion.

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