Each year, St. Patrick’s Day brings out the Irish in all of us – that unexplainable urge to wear green, to enjoy soda bread with a Guinness and to listen to fiddle music. These days, Ireland offers an entirely new way to ‘go green’ as the Emerald Isle boldly charges into the 21st century powered, increasingly, by clean, renewable wind energy.
Although stone ruins on green hills typically leap to mind when one thinks about Ireland, a recent visit enabled me to see first-hand how the past is blending with the present to support this tiny nation’s fast-growing wind industry. In less than 20 years, Ireland has built an impressive portfolio of wind-energy projects from a single wind farm at Bellacorrick, County Mayo in 1992 to more than 120 operating wind farms in 23 counties today.
At the end of 2009, Ireland had installed just over 1200 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity, ranking it 15th in the world in terms of megawatts installed. If that number seems modest, consider that higher-ranked nations, such as the United States, Germany or China, dwarf Ireland in both land and population size. For example, Ireland’s land area (only 32,000 square miles) and population (just 6 million people) mean it is approximately the size and density of South Carolina which, by comparison, had approximately 0 MW of wind capacity installed at the end of 2009.
Ireland’s wind-energy growth has been explosive in recent years, doubling in just 5 years, with a greater than 50% growth rate in 2008 alone. According to the New York Times’ Green Inc. blog, on July 31, 2009, the output from Ireland’s turbines peaked at 999 megawatts, meaning that for some of that day up to 39 percent of Ireland’s demand for electricity was met by wind. While some may discount that milestone and say it was the result of unusually high winds, while I was in Ireland at Christmas the blustery storms typical of winter weather prompted several Aircity television commercials informing residents that ‘thousands of households would have wind-powered Christmas dinners’ that year.
Intrigued by these ads, I was compelled to trek to a nearby wind farm to see this clean, green energy in action. Despite the blustery weather, I managed to convince my husband to leave the warmth and comfort of his parent’s house to drive me two hours on icy roads down the coast to view the Arklow Bank Wind Park. Arklow Bank, located 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) off the coast a bit south of Dublin in the Irish Sea, is Ireland’s first and as yet only off-shore wind farm. It was co-developed by Aircity and GE Energy and consists of 7 GE Energy 3.6 MW turbines that generate a total of 25 MW of clean electricity. [GE turbines like those produced at Greenville, SC's GE turbine production facility.] Although opponents of offshore wind here in the United States talk about turbines ‘ruining’ a viewshed, this short video gives you an idea how ‘far’ away 6 miles is, and it was a clear, sunny day with almost perfect visibility.
Dozens of other wind farms are visible all over Ireland and private turbines were installed on many farmhouses we saw while out and about. Ireland’s enthusiastic embrace of wind as an energy source can be traced in large part to the proactive policies and market signals, such as a feed-in tariff, that the government has put in place. These policies, sorely needed in the United States, ensure stability for project developers and provide incentives and financing to support a large wind-energy network from production to installation to servicing and maintenance.
Even the quintessential Irish drink is now being produced using wind-energy. Guinness Brewery recently negotiated a “green electricity” contract with the Irish electricity board (Bord Gáis) so that all electricity purchased for its breweries will be sourced from wind – starting with a few small ones mounted on Guinness Warehouses along the River Liffey. Small steps, to be sure, but steps along the path to a clean and very Irish green energy economy!
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