Ireland could be a global leader in the burgeoning offshore wind industry, say local stakeholders, but only if the Government acts quickly and decisively to streamline regulatory roadblocks and nurture an indigenous offshore wind supply chain.
“When it comes to the generation of offshore wind energy, Ireland has the potential to be a global leader. There’s no question about that,” said Kieran Ivers, Head of Business Development with Cork based marine survey specialists Green Rebel, one of very few Irish businesses operating in the early phase offshore wind supply chain.
Ivers stresses the need for the Government to eliminate uncertainty in the sector, through clear and efficient regulation, and for urgent investment in developing the local Irish supply chain to service offshore wind projects.
“If we’re going to realise the benefits of this exceptional offshore energy resource for the Irish people, the State needs to act now,” he said. “The economic opportunity that was lost for Ireland in the era of oil and gas exploration, when we sold off our assets… that can’t be repeated for offshore wind energy.”
If there is one thing we have plenty of in Ireland, it is wind. Our geographical location on the edge of the north east Atlantic, and the fact we have a maritime area ten times the size of our land mass (around 880,000 km2 according to Marine Institute figures), mean the island of Ireland has some of the best offshore wind potential in the world.
In July 2020, MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine, released its EirWind report “Blueprint for offshore wind in Ireland 2020-2050: A Research Synthesis”, which described Ireland’s offshore wind resource as “game changing”.
Offshore wind development will be instrumental to Ireland meeting its legally binding European decarbonisation commitments for 2030 and 2050. The Programme for Government sets out clear targets to reach 5GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, rising to 30GW by 2050. Offshore wind at that scale would transform Ireland from a massive importer of unsustainable fossil fuels, into a sustainable, self-sufficient clean energy exporter. That transformation also offers potentially huge socio-economic benefits, but only if we put the systems and supports in place to capitalise on them.
According to the EirWind report, hitting our 2030 targets could support up to 12,000 Irish jobs spanning a range of industry sectors, including planning and development, installation and commissioning and operations and maintenance. That influx of jobs and prosperity could transform the fortunes of coastal communities around Ireland. For that to happen, however, we must resolve the inefficiencies in our regulatory framework and develop a local supply chain capable of servicing those offshore wind projects.
While regulatory reform is ongoing, through the recently introduced Maritime Area Planning (MAP) bill, and the establishment of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA), most stakeholders agree progress is painfully slow.
“From a regulatory perspective, I believe the right steps are being put in place, but I fear we’re underestimating the length of time it will take to set up MARA,” said Ivers. “The length of time it takes to do anything in Ireland, frankly, represents a threat to meeting our 2030 renewable energy targets.”
To illustrate his point, Ivers points to the issue of foreshore licences, which are required before necessary survey work can begin on potential offshore wind sites. Obtaining a licence, he says, typically takes a few months in other jurisdictions, whereas developers can wait two years or more for approval here. It is that kind of regulatory morass, he believes, that has seen major international developers like Equinor pull out of the Irish offshore wind market.
“There’s no question that the legislative framework in which we’re currently operating was a contributory factor in Equinor’s recent decision to quit Ireland,” he said.
Ivers is not the only one frustrated by the pace of change. In December 2020 the wind industry body Wind Energy Ireland published the report “Building Offshore Wind in Ireland”. In it, they set out recommendations on the best path to achieve the Government’s 5GW 2030 offshore wind target. The report identified key technical and policy blockages impeding development in Ireland, and outlined what needed to happen to resolve them, and by when.
In September 2021 the organisation released a followup report, “Twelve months to deliver offshore wind energy”. That report revealed none of the original targets had been or would be met and outlined what needs to happen over the coming year to get Ireland’s offshore wind programme back on track.
“We can – and will – develop offshore wind farms before the end of the decade,” they said in the report. “But whether we will develop enough to meet our 5,000 MW by 2030 target, to cut carbon emissions in the energy sector to under 4 million tonnes, depends on what our political leaders – both in Government and in Opposition – do in the next 12 months.”
While the pace of regulatory reform is frustrating, Ivers views uncertainty as the biggest threat to the offshore wind opportunity for Ireland, particularly its impact on building out a local supply chain.
“When there is so much uncertainty, it’s very difficult for companies to establish and see a clear line of business ahead,” he said. “First phase offshore wind projects — primarily those off the east coast, which will be the first out of the blocks — will not be able to avail of an Irish supply chain because it doesn’t exist. Irish ports aren’t yet ready to meet the demands, and the supply chain in general is underdeveloped. It’s a missed opportunity for jobs and prosperity, which will be exported out of the country.”
Government, he insists, must learn lessons from this, and learn them quickly if we’re to enable an indigenous supply chain in time to capitalise on phase two offshore wind developments.
“We are the laggards of Europe in this, but the opportunity for Ireland, because of the resources we have, because of the sheer exposure to the experience, we have the opportunity to be global leaders,” said Ivers. “Government needs to recognise that, and be brave and be bold and have the vision to enable the Irish supply chain, enable innovation.”
Historically, Ireland has always been a tremendous exporter of talent, expertise, and innovation. Ivers sees the potential for Irish companies to develop offshore wind knowledge locally, and take that expertise to emerging global markets. Therein lies another huge opportunity, but before we can export our knowledge, we need to prove we can get offshore wind right at home.