Spirit of Ireland – Divine wind or hot air?

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.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to Spirit of Ireland – Divine wind or hot air?

  1. I was worried that this blog had finished 🙂

    Re= 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

    Yes I am glad to see a bit of sense.
    Perhaps I come from a different angle:
    I believe energy efficiency regulation is wrong (the energy is there in increasingly varied ways),
    but that emissions are a recognized problem, and the focus should be on dealing with them.

    I have laid it out pretty extensively on

    For an idea regarding efficiency v emissions:

    When looking at electricity consumption, what is and what is not important when it comes to regulation?

    As far as consumers are concerned, they can decide for themselves if any savings in buying this-or-that product is worth it for them, when they compare with advantages other products have, since they would not be for sale otherwise.

    In contrast, the 2 main issues for society and therefore politicians to consider are
    1. The depletion of energy resources
    2. The emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases

    The depletion of energy resources (including “wasting electricity”) is itself not a problem that needs regulation:
    1. Renewable energy sources already exist, and are increasingly deployed.
    2. As finite sources become scarcer, their price rises, reducing such consumption anyway, and the choice of renewable energy resources becomes more natural on the market place. Taxes or subsidies can of course speed up the effect before then.
    3. The strategic importance of not relying on fuel imports (eg Middle East oil for USA or Russian gas for the EU) is of no great relevance in electricity generation, which tends to utilize local (coal/gas) and renewable (hydropower, wind etc) and/or long-lasting (nuclear) sources.

    Note: The strategic importance of reliance on foreign electricity generation in renewable electricity multinational “super-grids” does need to be considered. However, at least in North America and Europe, it does not pose the same geopolitical problems as fuel imports. Also, it needs to be weighed against the advantage for a country of adhering to internationally set carbon emission levels.
    A further point is that an internet of electricity, just like an internet of communication, is less reliant on any one source or connection.
    So if one supplier or connection is knocked out, others can take over, also automatically, as it is sensed by the grid management applications, but also by “real” consumer smart meters, not just ones that “tell you if you have a light switched on or not”.

    Carbon emissions do seem to be a problem:
    1. Whether or not global warming would be taking place anyway, the current general consensus is that carbon emissions aggravate the effect.
    2. As an overall principle, if any man made ecological disturbances can practically be limited or contained, that is a desirable course of action.
    3. Unlike with energy depletion, energy markets do not themselves react to increasing carbon emissions.

    Carbon emissions should therefore be the focus for politicians in legislation, involving any energy efficiency measures required – not the other way round.

    The current energy efficiency vogue among politicians involves banning popular electrical products like light bulbs that don’t meet certain efficency criteria (banning impopular products is obviously less effectful), which is going to alienate more and more people at a time when positive climate change policies are needed.
    The energy savings are not as great as assumed anyway, and not just for specific reasons as listed for light bulbs: People simply use more of the effectively cheaper energy, as described below.

    Positive, constructive politicians identify climate change problems and deal with them directly.
    That means top down politics, major change before minor change, with respect for the people in all change.
    By dealing with carbon emissions directly at generation and distribution levels, tax funded if necessary, the question of banning people from using what they want at consumption level never arises. Appropriate taxation itself lowers consumption and emissions until solutions at source have been implemented. Taxation is not popular, but bans are even less so, and temporary taxation can be implemented as described, giving minimal impact to poorer households and consumers, who save money compared with today in making energy efficient choices.

    The argument that
    “Supply side carbon emission reduction is too slow and expensive, we must also act on consumption, banning products that don’t meet defined efficiency standards”
    therefore doesn’t hold up.

    1. Because, as will be seen, generation and distribution efficiency can be addressed in several ways, not all of which need take time, and some of which need organizational thinking, rather than money.

    2. Because appropriate taxation as described not only raises funds, it quickly limits and redirects consumption as required, with much more future adaptability regarding scope and application than bans.

    Why Energy Efficiency measures backfire anyway

    Scottish research, as reported early in 2009, points out how energy efficiency measures backfire.

    The logic is easy enough.
    Because as energy is effectively cheaper that way, people just use more of it, not just of energy efficient appliances, but of any electric appliances, since the electricity bill is not going to be so big!
    So boiler temperatures are turned up, air conditioning/freezer/fridge temperatures turned down, less worry about using spare electric heaters, and computers, TVs, lights etc are left on more….

    Yet again, the overall view is missing when it comes to energy efficiency.
    Politicians and their army of consultants turn on one appliance next to another and assume that’s the whole story.
    It never is, never was, and never will be.

  2. peter says:

    The energy supply can be made available, as you say,
    and wouldnt exclude fossil fuel. if emission controlled
    = like carbon capture and storage scheme at Schwarze Pumpe

    Guess you saw the wind energy storage scheme article in Irish times recently about Uckermark, German too: they store wind power as hydrogen then mix with biogas 🙂
    also re other storage like danish windpower stored in swedish hydropower

    In general the focus should in my view be on emissions:
    Since energy supply is not a worry, all the current focus on energy efficiency regulation (banning light bulbs etc) is in my view daft: if they must be targeted then taxation can at least give government income for environmental projects

    Peter in Dublin

  3. paddy says:

    I have discovered, through the process of talking to people about Spirit of Ireland, and also now in this forum that the nuclear debate is not over in this country. There is only one reason that I prefer wind, wave or tidal energy over nuclear or fossil energy. Nuclear and Fossil energy ARE TOO EFFICIENT, from the perspective of a biosphere expected to sustain lifeforms Human / Animal ? Vegetation… . they both produce electricity by breaking chemical bonds, therefore they will always have vast quantities of waste, which which we then have to deal with.
    This waste is poisonous to a living biosphere, From a purely mechanical perspective, the planet / universe does not care, it does not need life to survive.
    Wind, wave and tidal are transformational, they produce electricity by turning mechanical energy into electrical energy, no destruction of chemicals or elements, so no waste. This also the explains why renewables need large scales to perform economically. But they are more efficient from the perspective of a planet expected to sustain life. Waste is very expensive to deal with so they are more efficient from an economic viewpoint also.

    Its a question of logic not philosophy.
    Up to now we didn’t really have a choice, and had to worry about waste, now we do.
    Prof Walton has proved to me this week that he would go the bus stop to get the train or else he has a serious reading problem

  4. Lenny Antonelli says:

    John, another good critique of SoI here: http://www.sustainability.ie/pumpedstoragemyth.html

  5. @Adam

    I agree with your comments. The hype around wind is leading to mal-investment, sucking resources away from technologies with better long-term economic prospects. We cannot afford to subsidise a mistake on this scale.

    My favourite renewable technology is Tidal Lagoons. These can be combined to provide both generation & storage with a smooth and predictable profile. The resource at Arklow Banks is staggering. I posted about it here http://spiritofireland.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=107

  6. dominic delaney says:

    I am for the idea of spirit of Ireland project as to continue down the route of fossil fuels is environmentally damaging also not sustainable. Whether the wind farms proposed by the spirit project are capable of providing enough energy is one thing, but pumped storage is a good idea. I read an article recently which said that the French energy company EDF could not dispose efficiently of it off peak power, with this in mind could we not import off peak energy through an interconnector to drive the pumps required to fill the spirit project reservoirs if required ????

  7. peter dublin says:

    Well I’ve been to one of those spirit of ireland talks…

    They seem to think they can offset the costs by exports through the electricity interconnectors
    – which can of course conversely bring cheap imported energy

    As for coal being necessarily bad of itself:
    No it isn’t.
    The emissions can be.

    But then you simply compare cost and viability of coal’s emission processing to phased in emission limits,
    with any other energy source, for those limits.

    Instead of the artificial carbon emission trading, as in Kyoto protocol and current EU legislation, emission limits are simply phased in,
    treating CO2 just like any other emission substance (sulphur, mercury, whatever)
    with continuous assessment that specific reductions of CO2 remain
    relevant with regard to actually lowering world temperatures.

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