Last week, something pretty unusual showed up in a number of national newspapers. This was a full-page advert under the title ‘Spirit of Ireland‘. This tied in with the launch of a website and a big PR push through the national media. You can see the video clip below:
This media programme got a major shot in the arm yesterday with a favourable article in the Irish Times from Prof Ray Kinsella of UCD. “This is the public good as a vital force in transforming, not just our energy supplies and our economic trajectory, but the whole manner in which Ireland, as a community, can function. That, surely, is transformational”, wrote Kinsella, who is especially lavish in his praise for entrepreneur, Graham O’Donnell, the main driver behind the project (with Prof Igor Svets of TCD leading the scientific team).
In a nutshell, Spirit of Ireland is about energy independence. The plan is to replace €30 billion in energy imports over a 10-year period by investing heavily in wind power, backed up by pumped storage (the ESB’s Turlough Hill station in Wicklow has been providing pumped storage since the 1960s, using off-peak electricity to pump the water uphill).
I’ve written at length about the potential – and some of the limitations – of wind energy in the Irish Times. What Spirit of Ireland does is take the positive story and run with it. For that, they are to be commended. In a time of unprecedented economic gloom and low national morale, it’s heartening to see a substantial infrastructural project that isn’t covered with the gombeen fingerprints of Martin Cullen or some of the other intellectual pygmies who have collectively run the ship of state onto the rocks in the last decade and more.
Wind energy is one natural resource Ireland has in abundance. The fact that it’s zero-carbon makes it worth more than oil or gas – if we can figure out how to turn it into a large-scale reliable form of energy. There’s the rub. The winds blow one day, and drop the next. Sometimes, we can be almost totally becalmed for a week at a time. What happens then? Can we really afford to decommission all those carbon-spewing power stations and still expect the lights to stay on?
The Spirit of Ireland proposal harnesses wind with another natural advantage of Ireland: plenty of glacial valleys suitable for conversion to hydro-storage reservoirs (costing around €800 m each to construct).
Not everyone is convinced. I first met Prof Philip Walton, Emeritus professor of physics at UCG at a debate on whether wind or nuclear power offered the best way forward for Ireland. On the night in question, he and I spoke on the same side of the argument (pro-nuclear) in TCD while Minister Eamon Ryan and Frank McDonald of the Irish Times, among others, opposed.
Prof Walton wrote to me today querying the calculations underpinning Spirit of Ireland. He says, for instance, that if “the proposal is to install 6900MW of wind generators which, given a load factor of 35%, would provide an average of about 2400MW of electricity. Our requirement can easily be 5000MW so the proposal would provide less than half of this”.
Of more specific concern is the capacity of stored power: “Using first year college physics one can calculate that this would only provide 5000MW of electricity for less than 11 hours; not very useful if we have calm weather for a week or more”.
The whole idea, says Walton, “is obviously very simplistic and very impractical; to say that it could be achieved in 5 years is mind boggling. While we are right to consider sustainable sources, it is my opinion that renewables alone will not solve our energy problems and that we are on a dangerous road led largely by the Green Party”.
He concludes by warning that “our energy problems will become so serious we must urgently consider all options including renewables, strict conservation measures, nuclear power and the role of the dwindling fossil fuels (though they have CO2 emissions).
Another regular correspondent of mine, Denis Duff, a retired engineer, cautions that we would have to install 18,000 MW of wind energy capacity, at a cost of €35 bn, with an overall project cost of €50 bn, to make this – maybe – work.
I have repeatedly advocated a middle road – of course we should massively invest in wind energy, of course we should aim to sell our surplus power to Europe via an interconnector, but surely we should replace our ‘baseload’ power stations (like Moneypoint) with two or three 1gw nuclear stations? France powers 80% of its national grid on electricity, even the US uses a great deal of nuclear (which is dwarfed by its colossal overall consumption).
Once you get over the planning problems (and we’d better start on emergency legislation to prevent the Nimbys from blocking each and every significant project from here till Doomsday) we could probably have a couple of (very safe) mid-sized nuclear plants whirring away in well under 10 years.
I don’t believe we can afford to sit back and pick and choose which energy options we like and which we don’t. It’s got to be a belt-and-braces approach, i.e. belt on with both wind and nuclear energy projects now, while we still have the chance, and brace for climate and energy impacts that are coming our way a whole lot sooner than people seem to realise.