Pylons: Grid developments are wrong approach

Grid developments are the wrong approach, writes Emer O’Siochru.

The development of pylons across the midlands to facilitate renewable energy export looks like a necessary, if unfortunate development, but, what if it is the consequence of a mistaken strategy that sells a natural resource short, increases our energy vulnerability and does little if anything to mitigate climate change?

The high-voltage pylons planned by Eirgrid are part of the Grid 25 strategy to enable wind to grow to 40% of total electricity generation in Ireland. Integrating over 30% of variable wind energy into a grid system built for fossil fuel generation is highly problematic, especially when, as now, electricity consumption is stable or dropping due to conservation efforts. Inputting such high levels could easily crash the grid, causing widespread blackouts. This target, then, is necessarily linked to the export of surplus electricity, a strategy piggybacked by private wind developers with ambitious plans for mega windfarms that bypass the Irish grid to feed directly into the UK electricity market.

The root of our current renewable energy strategy is a quasi-religious belief in the ultimate wisdom of globalised markets.

The proposers tell us that the variability of wind and solar can be overcome by linking EU national grids into a single super grid so that the wind blowing and the sun shining somewhere along its length will offset calm and cloudy weather elsewhere. Although Ireland is not the only country pursuing this big grid model, it leads the EU in terms of investment and EU funding; recalling memories of Irish policy makers cheerleading the growth of Irish banks out of all proportion to our domestic economy. As then, the root of our current renewable energy strategy is a quasi-religious belief in the ultimate wisdom of globalized markets.

Wind farm developers in Ireland have been encouraged in Ireland by the high wind speeds and a supportive incentive and regulatory regimes. At first, local developers planned and built their wind farms but gradually some changed to a speculative model wherein they sell ‘ready to go’ projects with planning and grid access to larger developers for up to €300,000 per megawatt capacity. These developer super profits have been eroded recently by landowners demanding a larger cut and the growing caution of the prospective global operator buyers such as Mainstream Renewable Power and Element Power. The global operators typically sell on some or all of their interests in operational wind farms to hedge and sovereign funds at high multiples of the projected income. Again, perhaps spooked by bubble fears or community resistance, these investors have become less eager to buy, so that Mainstream Renewable Power now intend to target pension funds and ‘crowd sourcing’ for future investors.

There is a growing belief amongst Department officials, the Green Party and environmental NGOs that local resistance to wind turbines can be eliminated by simply ensuring greater local community ownership of wind farms, as in Germany and Denmark, where non-commercial ownership is the norm for renewable generation. The problem is that the current wind farm bubble may be about to burst with predictable consequences.

Irish electricity consumers are paying financial elites to put raw wind energy into the transmission grid for domestic use and export without charging for the use of this national resource. A safer and fairer way to build ‘community’ shareholding, then, is to recognize the Irish people’s ownership of wind resources and demand a rent or fee high enough to leave only normal profit for developers and fair access rights for landowners. This wind rent could be leveraged through a public purpose bank to build publically, community and cooperative-owned renewable energy assets, and/or given back to Irish people by way of an equal per capita dividend.

It is imperative that the Irish people fully participate in developing a new energy policy, focused on job creation. This well may bring forth an alternative model of distributed power and distributed ownership ownership, where power is produced close to where it is consumed, by large energy users and eventually by local cooperatives for local use. This fosters combined heat and power generation and bioenergy, which can solve the environmental impacts of increased food production. With adequate electricity storage, the need for surplus capacity is obviated, balancing power is easier to manage and transmission losses can be avoided, leading to significant cost reductions. This is likely to become an increasingly important part of the power system and is more appropriate to renewable energy.

The author is a member of the People’s Charter on Renewable Energy and the Kilcommon Upperchurch Wind Awareness Group.