The author is a senior executive working in the energy sector in Ireland whose identity is known to Gript. We have agreed to provide him anonymity so that he can speak freely.
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I have a confession to make. I was a card-carrying member of the wind energy establishment in Ireland, in fact I still am. I bought into the dream. I mean, it made sense to power our little island with wind, didn’t it? We have loads of the stuff! I am here today to tell you that I was wrong, the dream I believed in has become a nightmare, and our little island is heading for an electricity apocalypse on a par with the horrible events that unfolded in Texas recently unless we take urgent action as a nation.
I have been working on developing, constructing, and operating wind and solar projects in Ireland for over two decades now. It has been my life’s work and my endeavours and passion have been rewarded with various senior positions and board seats. I look back now and feel slightly ashamed because the truth is the integration of wind and solar electricity generation onto the grid at scale imposes massive direct and indirect cost to the Irish consumer and divide communities while they are at it. And it is only going to get worse, a lot worse.
The island of Ireland has a huge amount of wind generation already. About 5.5 gigawatts to be exact. To put that in context the average demand for electricity in Ireland is about 5 gigawatts, at least before current and future data centre load is factored in which will almost double that number. That sounds great, at least until you consider the two fatal flaws of renewables – reliability and price.
The first point, and perhaps the most worrying, is that wind and solar are not reliable, what we in the industry call “dispatchable”. That is, wind cannot be summoned onto the network when needed. Usually, this need arises on a cold winter’s night, exactly the time that the wind will not be blowing, and the sun will not be shining. We saw this exact scenario play out in February in Texas, and we saw it lead to deaths and significant suffering. Texas, like Ireland, is an isolated electricity market with a significant amount of intermittent renewable generation that cannot be called upon exactly when required.
We do not realise how dependent we are on electricity until it is taken away from us. Think of the last power cut and how helpless you were, expand that out to a few days and society begins to crumble. That may sound like an extreme thing to say, but nearly every facet of our society, from our homes to the food we eat, is built upon an assumption that we will have uninterrupted, or nearly uninterrupted, access to electricity.
But what about storing the green energy for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun shine? Storage is great, in theory, but it too comes at a price to the consumer in the form of guaranteed contracts for the developer and a further limitation of capacity. The best storage units in the world have a few hours of generation at best and require huge amounts of raw materials from parts of the world with sketchy human rights records. And, of course, none of this can be achieved without significant upgrading of transmission infrastructure which, you guessed it, the consumer will have to pay for at some point whether they know it or not.
You often hear proponents exclaim that wind on the system in Ireland has a lowering effect on wholesale price. This is to a degree true, but it leaves out a critical point – wind farms cannot tell the market with any certainty that they will be ready to generate at a point in time greater than a week away. Imagine your baker or butcher telling you that then they do not know how much produce they will have when you go in for your weekly shop, or when they’ll be getting more in, but that you’ll have to pay them for the produce you wanted even if they can’t give it to you at the time that you want it. This is essentially what renewables are availing of in the form of government backed subsidies.
The next fatal flaw of renewables is price. You cannot compare a non-dispatchable generator i.e. wind with a baseload generator such as coal or gas on price, it is an apple and oranges situation. There is such a mad scramble for green electrons globally that demand from data centres and corporate entities has well outstripped supply of suitable sites in Ireland. The market for large scale renewable development assets in Ireland is on fire at the moment and they are changing hands at all stages of maturity for eye watering amounts. All these developer margins must be added onto the final bill i.e. the state backed guaranteed price the wind or solar farm commands in the market when generating electrons. This is evident in the latest award of wind and solar power offtake contracts under the Department of Environment RESS auction. Essentially this is a guaranteed price that wind and solar generators are paid in the market and it cleared at an average of €73, approximately double the wholesale electricity price for a technology that cannot show up when it is needed. This guaranteed price is at a time when the cost of wind turbine technology has roughly halved in the last 15 years and solar technology has declined even further.
As an aside, one of the great ironies is that China continues to manufacture 80% of the world’s panels in factories powered by reliable coal fired electricity!
The true cost of renewables is hidden in plain sight. Integration of geographically dispersed generators has required massive infrastructure upgrades and community upheaval across the country in the form of more substations, wires, and cables. It will only require more as every scrap of available land and sea is prospected over the next few years by multinational utilities in response to lofty targets in our Climate Action Bill. The cost of installing and maintaining these grid upgrades will ultimately fall to the consumer as they are factored into developer’s RESS price and clawed back on consumers bills through network charges. Integrating “lumpy” renewable generation has further hidden costs as large-scale fossil fuel power plants are forced to turn up or down depending on the availability of wind or solar at a given point in time. These plants are not designed to cycle like this, and it is causing operation and maintenance issues which ultimately leads to greater costs to the consumer. All of this in a country with the 4th highest electricity prices in Europe already.
Under the Climate Action Plan and the Climate Action Bill Ireland is setting a course to at least double its installed capacity of onshore wind. Offshore wind is likely to match the onshore total if not exceed it and add to that a good smattering of solar. This renewable friendly policy framework has attracted investment from all over the world and the result will be a proliferation of wind turbines and panels in areas that are not suitable (populated or environmentally sensitive areas) and/or wildly expensive (30km from the shore). I see this every day of the week in my day-to-day interactions in the market. There is now an assumption in the industry that project costs are largely irrelevant, and any increases in cost can simply be hoisted onto the consumer.
The Greta Thunberg effect has made grid scale renewables into a cult of sorts and the end point I fear will be an Armageddon for the fuel poor and most vulnerable in society.
Eirgrid are already warning of blackouts as the capacity margin narrows with every passing year. Of course – there is a solution that nobody is willing to talk about. A couple of projects with a certain fuel type in the right areas would deliver reliable, base load, emission free, indigenous power for the next 50-100 years but I don’t see any would-be Monty Burns’ raising their hand anytime soon…