Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spirit of Eire

I like big thinking - small countries should indulge in it every once in a while. It's one of our competitive advantages. I think this is one of the reasons why there has been such a positive response to the Spirit of Ireland initiative. Amidst all the doom and gloom, here's a big idea that promises to get us back on track to a better future. Who could object? Even if it will cost €10 billion according to today's Sunday Business Post.

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.


  1. Do you have an issue with Amish lifestyle?

  2. I thought the problem with wind was that its total production capacity could not be stored and then used as needed by the national grid on a latent basis. I understand the cleverness of Spirit of Ireland is that turns wind into latent hydro power. If that is the case, should you not be analysing the effectiveness of wind turbines pumping water and and the weight of water needed to substantiate the claimed made by the promoters? Then establish if the turbines can pump enough water to a holding which has enough capacity? Then see how the release of the capacity works with existing usage, modeling projected energy saving activity by business and consumers over say, the next 5 year? I would imagine that would provide some analysis of the Spirit of Ireland proposition. I don't think that taking the existing wind model and mapping it directly onto the claims of Spirit of Ireland - a new model - and saying simply that ' that will never work' is terribly rational. Would also suggest regarding the making linkages between new ideas on how we can be energy efficient to various political agendas that whilst they may be witty and good blog fodder they are also glib. And, as another commentator has already asked, what's wrong with the Amishers? Bet you drive a gas guzzler.

  3. @Anonymous
    There is nothing new about the idea of pumped hydro. It has been around for a long time. Turlough Hill is a local example.

    Pumped hydro is not widely applied because of the costs.

    The Spirit of Ireland is the one of the few outfits in the world that sees a Brand New Future for pumped hydro. They have not released any technical detail to support their outlandish claims. Skepticism is in place until they they come up with a tightly argued business plan.

  4. "The idea of energy independence is a bit like that of self-sufficiency: and self-sufficency is the road to poverty"

    Indeed, and oranges are like apples, in that they are both fruit. I'm quite surprised at the flawed logic there. Granted trade is essential to everyones over all betterment, but the suggestion that energy independence would plunge us into poverty is nonsensical, surely there would be plenty of other things we would happily trade for in that scenario. To be honest it belies an irrational standpoint on renewable energy. No, I'm not saying the arguments against it when put forward numerically are irrational, I'm saying the reason for your making the argument stems from an irrational source. Look within.

  5. @Thriftcriminal
    On the contrary I admire the Amish: I just don't want to have their lifestyle foisted upon me (by accident or design)

    Yes I drive a car (diesel), along with the majority of adults in Ireland

    @Grow Up
    Why stop at energy independence: why not food, clothing, laptops and cars? It's just silly to seek 'independence' in anything when you live on a island that has a land border with another country running through it.

  6. The most accurate and objective part of you blog is the statement "renewables won't solve our energy problems alone. Nuclear must play a part, as well as energy efficiency and future innovations." Yes, I agree. Firstly the nuclear debate must be opened but you are talking of a 20 year timeframe and at least the same planning and other logistical difficulties. Secondly, conservation and demand reduction are a vital part of any future energy strategy, hence the new building regulation. Finally however you betray any objectivity to new ideas but still see future innovations as a solution to our energy problems. You conveniently quote one day in January. What about all the other days when there was plenty of wind or did those days not support you arguement. Most wind resource calculations are carried out over much longer timeframes many where the aggregate available resource outstrips demand. The problem is simply a matter of variability and dispatchability. The "Spirit of Ireland" should be considered one of the future innovation you crave because it simply attempts to match such a valuable although variable resource with demand. Am I missing something here, but are the Danes and now it seems the Americans all aspiring Luddites. A very famous writer one said. "The answer my friend is Blowing in he WInd, the answer is blowing in the Wind."

  7. Now that's just trying to wriggle out of the dodgey logic. If, by advantage of resource or through investment we became a net energy exporter this would be economically favourable, right? I mean if we found the means to be more efficient than others at it economic theory regarding specialisation etc. would be in favour of that? By extension, if we are a net exporter we are therefore energy independent, are we not?

    You have a bee, and, I'll wager, a fine bonnet. Mr. Orlov had something to say about lack of adaptability in his talk too, if I remember.

  8. to Richard Tol

    Pretty certain that wind turbines aren't involved in pumping the water at Turlough. Now, if that were the case, you'd have something like the Spirit of Ireland prposition....turning wind into latent energy for use as needed by the grid. That's a clever idea. Should be explored, rigorously examined etc.

  9. To Gerard

    Like a lot of children I cycle a bike. No use to anyone - no consumption, doesn't drive the economy, doesn't pollute enough to create the need for new 'Green Technologies'. Useless things these bikes.

  10. I like my bike too. It goes where I want it to go and refueling is usually tasty. When it needs fixing I generally do it myself, mind you I do buy the parts and tools rather than smelting the ore and forming them by hand. I'll grant you that.

  11. Gerard,
    where did you get this statement from that Spirit of Ireland propose for Ireland "to become 100% reliant on wind and completely independent of the rest of the world for our electricity generation". Please post the link. The only place where I saw this sort of nonsense was in Richard Tol's speech. Please read the discussion on the Economy Ireland site following his speech. It is clear from the dicsussion that he did not know what he was talking about.
    You can find information on real plan on the Spirit of Ireland web site. There is discussion on the forum.

  12. @Listener
    The Spirit of Ireland promises to "[a]chieve energy independence in five years". Granting that they probably mean "energy independence in power generation" that means closing MoneyPoint and many gas-fired power stations. 100% wind is not needed, as we have peat and Corrib gas.

    Turlough Hill runs partly on wind. That's besides the point, however. Large price swings over the diurnal cycle have a long history. The demand for storing a large amount of electricity for a short period of time has a long history. Pumped hydro was tested and largely ignored by the market in the past. It is largely ignored by the market abroad. Hence my simple questions. What is new about pumped hydro in 2009? What is special about pumped hydro in Ireland? As far as I know, the answer to both questions is "nothing". That means that pumped hydro is technically feasible but commercially not viable. My suspicion is strengthened by the fact that the Spirit of Ireland behaves as if they are seeking public subsidies.

  13. I've been to some of the lovely valleys in Dongal the Spirit of Ireland are probably thinking of. They are quite beautiful although underutilised by the Irish public and largely populated by sheep. Nevertheless, I suspect this sentiment might change if concrete plans for concrete dams were ever made. There's a reason why Dublin City Council are proposing to pump water from the Shannon instead of damming another nice valley in Wicklow. Demand for natural beauty is highly income-elastic and supply is fixed. People in rich countries like ours like to keep their wilderness as it is. I suspect this set of preferences is not quite appreciated by the Russian backers of the Spirit of Ireland.

    Like Richard Tol, I have no idea if SoI's sums add up, as I haven't seen them. Nevertheless, I don't see pumped hydro being built anywhere else on a serious scale - and there's plenty of places in the world as windy as Ireland, but with much easier planning laws.

  14. Richard,
    instead of speculating on the basis "they probably mean" you should better read what exactly they mean.
    Why do not you get the facts right before making your statements?

  15. @George
    I was generous to the Spirit of Ireland.

    Their Ireland website claims that they want to "[a]chieve energy independence in five years".

    If I take this at face value, then they do not only want to revolutionise power generation, but the rest of the energy sector too.

    Specifically, all Corrib gas would need to be reserved for home heating and cooking. We'd need to switch all our arable land to biofuel, and most of our pasture land too, and then probably need to liquify a fair amount of peat to meet the demand for transport fuel.

    The Spirit of Ireland only mentions wind and pumped hydro, so that's why I say that they probably mean "energy independence in power generation" when they say "energy independence". "Energy independence in power generation" is ridiculous enough.

  16. @Richard: I suppose a BMW should be rigorously tested to validate it's claim to be the "ultimate driving machine" too? Grow up!

  17. I'll join this discussion with a fresh eye - That Richard Tol's article makes no substantive counterclaim to SOIs proposal. I don't see it as anything other than a poke at some of the more ambitious claims.

    Intellectually honest debate on the matter should focus on this:

    It is unlikely that the Spirit of Ireland has a technological break-through that drastically reduces the costs. If pumped hydro is not commercially viable elsewhere, why would it be in Ireland?

    I want to know more. Is this the case? Is this completely correct? Is SOIs 'innovation' a farse? This is where it really all hinges and casting doubt on the job creation figures is a red herring. The same applies to carbon reductions. Someone remarked to me the other day that the emissions cost of building a wind turbine outstrips any carbon savings it is likely to make. But if we try to lump 'this whole carbon thing' into the same undefined mess then we quickly arrive at paralysis. We're fucked wither way, so what's the point?

    The mask suddenly slips. This isn't about the engineering details of the program, it's about red herrings and underlying the whole thing is a far more simple conviction - IT WON'T WORK!

    Maybe that is correct, but debate should be honest. The crux is the engineering feasibility. Talk about that when you talk about SOI and leave the red herrings aside.

  18. @Nicksinthemix
    SoI claims that wind plus pumped hydro makes economic sense. I disagree, and at the surface I may appear to be just a vapid naysayer.

    However, SoI makes the claim without providing any data.

    My data points are few, so I can easily repeat them here.
    (1) The wholesale price of electricity varies between 2 cents per kilowatthour in the middle of the night and 20 c/KWh in the late afternoon/early evening.
    (2) This is the case for Ireland and many other countries, including a giant market like the USA.
    (3) Therefore, if you can store electricity for 16 hours (from 2 am to 6 pm) at a cost below 18 c/KWh, you will become very rich.
    (4) Pumped hydro can store electricity for 16 hours.
    (5) There is very little pumped hydro installed around the world, and nobody is rushing to add more.
    (6) Therefore, pumped hydro costs more than 18 c/KWh.

    This line of reasoning disregards the next best investment. So here is some more data.
    (7) The daily peak in electricity demand is met by gas turbines, in Ireland and elsewhere.
    (8) That is, according to the market, it is cheaper to vary supply than it is to have a constant supply plus storage to meet variable demand.
    (9) Gas-fired electricity costs about 6 c/KWh.
    (10) Therefore, pumped hydro costs more than 6 c/KWh.

    (11) Wind power costs between 6 and 8 c/KWh in Ireland.
    (12) Wind plus pumped hydro thus costs at least 12 c/KWh, but probably much more.
    (13) The PRODUCTION cost of wind plus pumped hydro is therefore close to or above the current RETAIL price of electricity.
    (14) The SoI business thus runs at a loss (perhaps subsidised by the taxpayer), unless they plan to substantially raise the price of electricity.

    (15) Alternatively, the SoI has a breakthrough technology that they are wisely hush about until they have the legal protection of a patent application.
    (16) If that were the case, then why would they advertise their product in the Irish Times and on the Pat Kenny show? And why would they want to deploy first in Ireland rather than in a much larger market, say California?

    So, few data indeed, but sometimes that is all it takes.

  19. Is there anything to be said for the geological advantages that the plan rests upon?

    Surely this has some baring on (6)?

    Wrt (11)-(14), does a slightly bigger picture come into play here?

    Finally (9), is that a complete price? I am thinking especially wrt an LCA.

    Many thanks for such a clear and considerate post. Some people might see this as splitting hairs but I don't give a toss about job creation figures being overstated. I just want to know if it is the real deal.

  20. @richard

    Could your argument be analogised in the following way:

    (1)Theoretically, a government can subsidise an advancing energy technology (like Germany has done with PVs).

    (2)The associated loss can be recouped once the technology advances to a certain level (PV grid parity)

    (3) The subsidising nation then has great advantages at hand (production leader etc.)

    (4) Pumped hydro-electric storage is not an emerging technology in the same sense

    (5) Subsidising pumped hydro-electric operates at a constant loss with no scope to recoup the original investment

  21. @Nix
    The uniqueness of Ireland's geology is overstated. Having semi-enclosed natural valleys near a large body of water is not limited to Donegal. Ireland's geology is also much the same as it was last year when hydro was not an option.

    My numbers do not change much when the projected price of carbon permits is added.

    On your second post, if there is a commercial future for pumped hydro, then there is no need for government subsidies. There are substantial amounts of "green" venture capital, very little or any of which goes to pumped hydro, presumably because other technologies are more promising.

  22. Just a quick word on the capacity factor of wind turbines in Ireland several farms which are correctly sited are achieving in excess of 40% on a regular basis, my dear friend Richard Tol has stated that Irelands geology has not changed in the last few years, how can you state that Richard, have you done a study or is this more conjecture. If you would like some facts to inform your conjecture you know where to find me
    and that address can be used by anyone with an interest in the project, and would like to know more
    Pat Gill


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