It's an ill wind... Should Ireland stop building wind farms?

We might not have much left to gain by pursuing wind power

It's an ill wind... Should Ireland stop building wind farms?

Keith Arkins, IWEA Facebook Page

A massive €74m wind farm is opening today between Limavady and Coleraine in Northern Ireland. It is one of the biggest wind farms on the island, but it comes at a time when some analysts are saying that the Republic of Ireland might not have much left to gain by pursuing wind power.

Should we keep building wind farms?

According to the government: Yes, probably. According to economists: Maybe not. According to the wind lobby: Definitely.

What is the argument against it?

Some suggest that wind is not as efficient a source of energy as it may first appear to be. The idea is that it is cheap and environmentally friendly - we have a lot of wind - why not turn it in to clean energy, right?

The reality is more complicated. Wind power is unreliable and the total amount of energy generated over any given period is hard to predict. 

Those who support (or are selling) wind energy will always quote the energy creating capacity of wind farms, but figures from across Europe say that on average they operate at below 20% of their maximum capacity.

The Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), a group supporting the development of wind energy in Ireland, have a section of their website called 'Wind Energy Myths'. It says that in Ireland wind farms produce energy 90-95 percent of the time, and that over the course of a year wind farms generate 30 percent of their theoretical maximum output.

Backup plan...

Due to the in-stable nature of wind energy supply for every unit of energy created by wind power, there needs to be a gas-powered unit of energy available somewhere else. This means that, while wind power can create massive amounts of energy during certain periods, it cannot fully replace old sources of energy.

Conflicting information

We all know that we need to develop new sources of energy, and that it would be great if Ireland could be more energy independent. The pro-wind narrative sounds nice, but not everyone agrees with it.

University College Dublin economist Colm McCarthy has found himself as wind power’s main public-opponent. Writing in the Farmers Journal, he says:Ireland already has substantial installed wind capacity and it is not obvious that there is an economic case for burdening the system with more.”

He points to the impracticability of supply and the fact that we have already built a massive wind energy infrastructure.

The IWEA have attempted to discredited his comments, he has hit back at the organisation - defending his argument and questioning the IWEA's motives - telling the Irish Times that: “They (IWEA) have been polluting the air with their propaganda for years. These guys aren’t here to help us, they’re trying to hold onto their jobs.”

The Irish Academy of Engineering warned earlier this month that living up to Ireland's current commitments to producing more wind power could be redundant, and that it could add €200m a year to the cost of electricity in Ireland.

The answer is blowing in the wind?

The EU released a report in October which said that onshore wind power is the cheapest form of energy when you factor in external costs like damage done to air quality and contribution to climate change. But Germany and Spain are already cutting back on their wind power subsidies.

Wind power is still central to the Government's plans to reduce Ireland's carbon emission to meet EU targets for 2020. The future strategy is under review and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Alex White, has indicated that he is open to the idea of rolling back the country's commitments to developing more wind power.