Up to 300,000 homes in Northern Ireland could have electricity supplied by offshore wind and tidal energy as part of a new deal with renewables companies.
The off-shore projects — proposed for sites off the coast of counties Antrim and Down — could together deliver 800 megawatts (MW) of electricity and power more than a fifth of homes.
A 600MW wind farm off the coast of Ardglass in Co Down could provide the lion’s share of the power boost while two tidal stream projects near Torr Head and Fair Head on the north coast will make up the balance.
A consortium of three firms have now signed legal agreements with the Crown Estate, which is responsible for leasing the seabed for renewable energy in United Kingdom waters up to 12 nautical miles from shore.
They will now begin detailed surveys and planning work before submitting proposals to the relevant Northern Ireland bodies for consent. Environmental groups have warned that careful consideration of the impacts of the projects on habitats and species along the coast will be necessary.
The 600MW offshore wind farm will be developed by First Flight Wind Limited, and a joint venture between Dong Energy of Denmark and RES-B9 (NI) Offshore Wind Limited.
Dong is behind a £50m plan to build wind turbines in Belfast, transforming the port into a hub for offshore wind construction.
The consortium says it envisages building around 100 wind turbines off the Co Down coast, connected by cable to an on-shore substation powering the grid. It expects to deliver a fifth of Northern Ireland’s energy needs.
First Flight Wind chairman Benj Sykes said the consortium is hoping to have the project up and running by the end of this decade.
Meanwhile, an underwater tidal turbine producing up to 100MW is to be installed at Torr Head by Tidal Ventures Limited, a joint venture between OpenHydro and Bord Gais Energy, the parent of Firmus Energy.
There should be no visual impact as the turbine will sit on the sea bed with only a cable emerging at the shore to connect to the grid, according to Bord Gais managing director David Kirwan.
“We regard this area to be the best source of tidal energy potentially in the island of Ireland,” he said. “The machine basically turns in two directions, depending on whether the tide is coming in or out. The technology is very predictable — we will know years in advance when the tides are going to occur and when we can be sure of generating electricity. We have a lease to develop up to 100MW which can supply 75,000 homes.”
Nearby at Fair Head, another tidal stream energy project is to be installed by Cork-based DP Marine Energy Limited with Belgian marine engineering company DEME Blue Energy — providing another 100 MW of power.
Simon De Pietro of DP Energy Marine said the plan is to install around 100 machines at various locations, with around 20 in shallower water and the rest under water in deeper water.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster called the deal “a major milestone for Northern Ireland”.
Rob Hastings from The Crown Estate said: “We will continue to work closely with Northern Ireland Executive and developers to progress projects and attract investment.”
But the RSPB said that while the projects are expected to contribute to the energy revolution, inappropriately designed or sited energy projects can seriously damage biodiversity.
“Torr Head is an important area for razorbill, puffin, feeding gannets and guillemots, while the south east coastal area is important for terns, brent geese , whoopers, gull species and gannets,” director James Robinson said.
“Offshore wind farms may cause problems for colonial breeding seabirds, non-breeding seabirds and waterbirds, and migrations of birds at sea.”
‘The bigger issue is the livelihood of fishermen’
By Victoria O'Hara
In the picturesque village of Ardglass, the autumnal skyline is punctured with the masts of fishing boats. Change is looming on the horizon, however, with plans for an imposing new addition to the skyline — a cleaner, energy efficient addition.
When the Belfast Telegraph visited yesterday, not everyone was blown away by the news that alongside the fishing boats in the distance, you will also get an eyeful of a 600 MW wind farm. Some believe it will instead be an eyesore.
Outside the local Fisherman’s Mission was Stephen Shiels, who has been working the sea for more than 20 years.
He said the fishing community in the town is deeply worried about the development — but the issue is not what they look like but the impact on their livelihood.
“I mean the prawn ground is only four or five miles off, that is as much I know about it so it would be in our fishing area,” he said. “Fishermen aren’t bothered about what they look like, sure the whole sea is covered by them.
“If they are working and saving energy fair enough, but it is a bigger issue for the fishermen, their livelihood and if we will be excluded from the area to fish.”
He described it as “very tough” for fishermen to earn a living now.
“You can’t get it to pay at all. A fisherman only sleeps four hours a day and works 20 at the moment,” he added.
Outside the harbour in the busy local shop, Kenny Hynds and his wife Bronach welcomed the news.
“I would be supportive. You can’t go on using fossil fuels. Sooner or later they are going to run out,” he said.
Brenda Trainer (62), who has lived in Ardglass for just over 10 years, said: “Of course everyone is going to have a different opinion about this but I always thought they were a good thing.
“I think they are ugly but I don’t think it will spoil the view or be bad for the village.”
In the local fish and chip shop, Noelle Hagan said she was not worried the wind farm would be a “blight on the environment”.
“They aren’t the nicest things to look at. But I don’t think it will do any damage to business, or the village. Well, I hope not. I can’t see why it would.”
Back at the harbour, 67-year-old crab fisherman Geoff Palmer had his concerns.
Fixing a net, accompanied by his dog Lucky, he said there were many questions to answer.
“After they install the cables will we be allowed in amongst them? Or will we be excluded from that area, especially when they start to drill the seabed?
“It is a real concern, and there is no mention of compensation if we get thrown off our fishing grounds. It is just very uncertain,” he added.
FOR the schemes: John Woods
This level of investment in two cutting-edge tidal power projects and a substantial offshore wind farm is great news for Northern Ireland. Currently a shade under 100% of the energy we use is from imported fossil fuel.
That means that not only are we failing to cut climate changing carbon emissions but we also have a huge leakage of cash out of the local economy.
About 10% of Northern Ireland’s GDP goes on importing oil, gas and coal.
By generating renewable energy locally we keep our hard-earned money circulating in the local economy. It is good news that a consortium led by locally owned B9 Energy has been a successful bidder. That’s a real boost to local business and will help keep profits circulating here.
Some people moan about the level of subsidy given to renewable energy but it is worth every penny if it primes investment that will give us real alternatives to oil and gas, the price of which will inevitably rise as long-term demand outstrips supply. And for Northern Ireland stuck at the end of very long fuel supply lines, it makes perfect sense to exploit clean local energy sources.
John Woods is Project Leader of the NI Green New Deal Group
Against the schemes: Dr John Campbell
Few days pass without announcements of new developments in renewables.
But the problem is cost. Unless policies are affordable for the developing world, where emissions are growing rapidly, we will have failed.
Sadly, our renewable electricity policies are so expensive that they are unaffordable even for us. Indeed, the expense is actually damaging to the low carbon agenda.
Consider the money. Subsidy accounts for about half of the annual income of an on-shore wind farm, and about two thirds of the income of an off-shore wind farm. At the moment UK consumers are spending about £1.5bn a year in subsidy to renewable electricity.
By 2020, that will have risen to about £8bn a year, the majority going to wind. Great for investors, not so for consumers.
Since renewables are not economic, the jobs are fragile.
What should we do? Oddly, the best thing is to cut subsidies, forcing competition and innovation. Otherwise we will be stuck with the expensive technologies of today, when what the world needs are renewables of tomorrow.
Dr John Constable is director of Renewable Energy Foundation, a UK charity publishing analysis on the energy sector