Stephen Wheeler, managing director, SSE Ireland Policy, Policy & regulation, Wind, Opinion, SSE, Climate Change, Ireland, offshore wind

"We believe everyone has a part to play in doing more to meet our 2020 emissions targets which we are on course to miss"

Last month Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar candidly told members of the European parliament in Strasbourg that Ireland is a “laggard” that needs to do a lot more to catch up with our European neighbours in tackling climate change.

The frank nature of the Taoiseach’s admission that he is “not proud of Ireland’s performance on climate change” gives many of us, including those in the energy industry working towards achieving our decarbonisation goals, pause to reflect on what more can be done.

At SSE, we believe everyone has a part to play in doing more to meet our 2020 emissions targets which we are on course to miss. If we are to make up ground on those targets, then we need to fast-forward the build-out of large-scale renewable energy capacity to close the gap.

In Ireland, we have one of the strongest offshore wind resources in the world; yet we are the only country in Northern Europe not currently developing offshore capacity. Offshore wind can deliver large volumes of renewable electricity in the short term to 2020, and can also set us on the right trajectory for more ambitious 2030 targets.

Seizing opportunities

SSE is a leading developer and operator of offshore wind energy – working with partners, we are involved in over 6,000MW of offshore wind projects around Great Britain, around 900MW of which is already generating. In Ireland, we’re the country’s largest onshore renewable energy generator, and we have the distinction of having co-developed Ireland’s first and only operational offshore windfarm in 2004, the seven-turbine, 25MW Arklow Bank Phase 1. It was delivered back then as a ‘demonstrator project’ to prove the opportunity that offshore wind energy could represent for Ireland. But, nearly 15 years later, that opportunity has not been seized.

We’re now ready to seize that opportunity. We’re actively progressing plans to invest over €1bn to fully develop the Arklow Bank Wind Park and deliver a minimum of 520MW of capacity. Arklow Bank, like other offshore wind energy projects in the Irish Sea, is an efficient and realistic way to take the big strides Ireland needs to hit its low-carbon targets.

However, progressing this opportunity can only happen if the right market conditions are in place.

Late last year, Ireland’s Department of Communications Climate Action and Environment consulted on the design of a new Renewable Electricity Support Scheme. In its draft consultation, the Department proposed that the new support scheme auction design would be technology-neutral. In our response, SSE called for the inclusion of offshore wind as a separate category, arguing that technology-neutral will not give offshore wind projects investment clarity in the timeframe that we need, or enable a local supply chain to develop. This is not to mention the expected grid cost efficiencies and reduction in the wholesale cost of energy that would accrue as a result.

Fundamentally, a technology-neutral approach fails to capture the diversification benefits to Ireland of offshore wind. These include:

  • typical load factors in excess of 40 per cent, considerably higher than most other renewable electricity sources;
  • delivery of consistent and predictable power to our national grid, providing significant system demand benefits;
  • the requirement for just one connection to bring power to where it’s needed, simpler than developing lots of small decentralised projects;
  • the potential scale and strategic location of offshore wind to meet the future energy demands of clean-tech multinationals investing in Ireland, particularly large-scale load from data centres;
  • economic investment in all coastal regions and consequent employment opportunities; and
  • upskilling for more ambitious 2030 targets and demand growth as heat and transport decarbonise through electrification.

Following years of innovation, and de-risking, offshore wind is now a scalable, proven and maturing technology which offers considerable benefits to Irish consumers and society. It may be that offshore wind remains more expensive than onshore wind, but the gap has been narrowing and costs continue to fall. That’s why we believe the time is now right for the Irish Government to provide clear support for offshore wind energy.

Ireland is at a point where it can create the market conditions needed to stimulate the opportunity that offshore wind energy now represents. By doing so, we can power an accelerated push towards meeting low-carbon energy targets, turning the tide on missing our 2020 climate change targets, and restoring our reputation and our pride as a global leader on behalf of climate change.

Stephen Wheeler will be speaking at Utility Week’s Ireland Power conference in Dublin in April