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Ireland: Where wind power is king

Wind blows constantly in Ireland, and there are plenty of open fields. Besides some bureaucratic hurdles, this land is a wind power developer's dream come true.

DUBLIN, Ireland--It's easier here than in most industrialized nations to green the electrical grid.

Peak demand for electricity in the Republic of Ireland comes to about 5,000 megawatts, Graham Brennan, program manager for renewable-energy research and development at Sustainable Energy Ireland, the government's green-technology arm, said in an interview in SEI's Dublin offices. The peak occurred last December, at 4,907 megawatts.

Studies show that onshore and offshore wind turbines located in the republic could deliver approximately 5,000 megawatts of power over both parts of the island, he added. This figure takes into account only sites where it would be somewhat practical to put wind turbines, wind speeds, the geography, and the transmission grid. If Northern Ireland is counted, the figure jumps to 6,000 megawatts. In all, the wind blowing over the island contains 8,000 megawatts of power.

"There is enough onshore-accessible wind for about 100 percent of our electricity requirements," he said. "In terms of our accessible resources, the biggest and most successful so far is wind."

The blustery situation has created a rush toward wind in the nation. The Republic of Ireland already has installed about 800 megawatts worth of wind turbines, and wind park developers have or are expected to file applications to put an additional 3,700 megawatts worth of wind onto the grid. The government will likely surpass its goal of having 1,200 megawatts of wind by 2010. (Ireland's ultimate goal is to get 33 percent to 42 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, a fairly high figure for an industrialized nation.)

While most of the turbines are located on land, developers are also looking at offshore wind, similar to the Arklow Bank park developed by General Electric and Airtricity. Tidal-power companies are also receiving a lot of attention.

If Ireland can execute on the potential, it would rank up with France, in terms of renewable energy. France, though, relies on nuclear power, a form of energy banned in Ireland, Germany, and some other EU states.

Chalk it up to geography. The island is one of the first landfalls for winds crossing the Atlantic, so wind hits harder and more constantly than most places in continental Europe. The capacity factory for onshore wind turbines--the measure of how much of the time the turbine is actually cranking out power--comes to 35 percent in Ireland. In Europe, the average is about 25 percent.

That means cheaper power. Electricity from wind costs about 6.2 euro cents a kilowatt-hour here--less than the 8.3 cents a kilowatt-hour that electricity from gas-fired plants costs, Brennan said. The wind figure doesn't include the costs of having a reserve (i.e. a gas facility that can produce power in slack times). Still, it costs less to generate power from wind than from gas.

Wind from offshore turbines costs about 12 cents a kilowatt-hour because of the higher maintenance and construction costs.

Expanding wind power, of course, comes with obstacles. For one thing, the wind doesn't blow all of the time, and often blows when people don't need power. Thus, the country would need power storage systems and there's not much that exists that can store hundreds of megawatts of wind-generated power.

"Power generators love a constant use of power, but they have always had this human demand curve they've had to deal with," he said.

To that end, SEI is participating in experiments with flow batteries from VRB Power Systems at a wind farm in Donegal. The batteries, ultimately, could be capable of storing 2 megawatts of power from the 7-megawatt wind plant.

The country also has a 300-megawatt pumped hydro facility in Turlough Hill. With this, wind power is used to pump electricity uphill. The water then gets released to churn hydroelectric turbines during peak times.

Second, setting up thousands of megawatts worth of wind farms means laying down a massive network of transmission lines. In turn, that means negotiating leases with lots of farmers and landowners. Bureaucratically, that's a mind-boggling task.

"It is easy to get financing. It is difficult to get turbines because there is such a demand for them, so there is a big delay for that," he said. "But in Ireland, the biggest delay is getting a grid connection."

As a result, it might be easier to actually concentrate on offshore wind farms. These farms could feed power into undersea cables connected to a power station built near the shore connected to the grid. No farmers involved.

Thirdly, any wind power buildup is going to have to be kind to owners of fossil fuel plants. If the country moves too quickly to wind, the profits of fossil fuel plant owners could be impacted. Fossil fuel plant owners, however, are needed for backup and reserve power.

Finally, wind turbines are in short supply these days, so erecting massive numbers of wind farms will take time. And in those intervening years, power consumption will continue to climb.