The Spirit of Ireland concept ticks all the right boxes all right: job creation, investment, CO2 emissions, energy independence, regional development. But a big idea isn't necessarily a good idea. As Richard Tol has observed in a recent post at the Irish Economy blog (worth reading the post and the comments), the Spirit of Ireland plan is unrealistic in almost every respect (reliance on wind, employment projections, planning permission timeline assumptions etc).
Their ambitions for Ireland to become 100% reliant on wind (backed up by pumped hydro) and completely independent of the rest of the world for our electricity generating needs is straight out of Official Sinn Féin's Irish Industrial Revolution written way back in 1977. Like I said, big ideas aren't necessarily good ones.
I've noted before that the Government's target of up to 40% of electricity generation from renewables (mostly wind) by 2020 is borderline insane. We have an installed base of some 920 MW of wind power generation (WPG) capacity already. Yet, at 3.45pm on Sunday 4th January this year, the total amount of electricity generated by all of Ireland's wind turbines combined was just 9MW - that's 1% of capacity. It shocks me how the media still report the installed capacity of wind generation as if it was the actual generated output. Take the RTE news earlier this week reporting on the announcement in relation to the West Clare Renewable Energy company and its plan to construct 30 3MW turbines. Or as RTE breathlessly tells us (quoting verbatim - I suspect - from the relevant press release), that's a generation capacity that "will be capable of meeting the energy needs of all of Clare and half of County Limerick". But not on Sundays in January I suspect. And only if you drive electric cars.
The tragedy as I see it is that the vital importance of the energy issues facing our country and our entire global civilisation have been hijacked by those elements of the green movement who prioritise responding to global warming over economic growth. Which is why enthusiasm for renewable energy sources trumps all other, more effective solutions to our energy challenges. A recent essay at The Oil Drum site - a group not exactly hostile to renewable energy - nevertheless points out that the cost of wind relative to the energy sources it would replace are enormously high. The author quotes a report on the actual as opposed to theoretical performance of WPG thus:
For two decades now, the capacity factor of wind power measuring the average energy delivered has been assumed in the 30–35% range of the name plate capacity. Yet, the mean realized value for Europe over the last five years is below 21%; accordingly private cost is two-third higher and the reduction of carbon emissions is 40% less than previously expected.RTE please note. Now don't get me wrong: I'm all for energy innovation - and for energy big thinking. Including renewables. But we can't defy the laws of physics - or meteorology. As David MacKay has made clear in his excellent book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, renewables won't solve our energy problems alone. Nuclear must play a part, as well as energy efficiency and future innovations. There is though no magic bullet (and anyway, physicists like Professor MacKay don't do magic!).
Yet there is an unfortunately element of magic realism about the Green Party's commitment to 40% renewables (now foisted on the nation by its larger partner in power, Fianna Fail). And I fear it has contaminated the thinking of many of those supportive of Spirit of Ireland. The idea of energy independence is a bit like that of self-sufficiency: and self-sufficency is the road to poverty. If that's what you want, fine. Just be up front about it, and please ask everybody else is that what we want before we set out on the road to an Amish-style utopia.