Cork County on the Rise: Cork well-placed to ride wave of EU’s renewable energy rules but investment and planning needed

Cork County on the Rise: Cork well-placed to ride wave of EU’s renewable energy rules but investment and planning needed
The calm before the storm....... Surfers on a crest of a wave at Garretstown beach, County Cork yesterday Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Claire Lambe says fossil power plants in Cork Harbour will have to compete with cheaper renewable energy generators

CORK has a breathtaking, rugged coastline that stretches over 470km, dotted with numerous beautiful harbour towns.

The city has always had a strong connection with the sea and is steeped in a rich maritime history. Vikings arrived on their longboats and settled in Cork harbour.

European traders brought prosperity to the region through trading wine and spices in exchange for Cork’s specialities of textiles, butter and whiskey.

It’s steeped in maritime history from the sinking of the Lusitania to the last stop of the Titanic at Cobh before its tragic sinking.

Many fishermen, sailors, boat- builders and traders have long made a living out of the Atlantic coastline and still do today.

The Atlantic has provided food, trade routes, leisure and sport. However, there is a resource we have yet to harness from this ocean which could bring with it economic growth, employment, abundant energy supply and a cleaner environment. This resource is the power of the sea.

This is not to say that we are not currently exploiting the ocean and seas to meet our energy needs. Just 50km from the beautiful Cork coast lies the Kinsale natural gas fields.

This non-renewable resource has been exploited for nearly 40 years and has just a few years of natural gas remaining.

The sea also provides ample cooling to a number of power stations and industries around the harbour where you will find Whitegate and Aghada power stations providing electricity through their gas-fired turbines. Whitegate is also the location of Ireland’s only oil refinery, producing 40% of the country’s transport and heating oil.

Yet, for a number of reasons, the energy industry in Cork is likely to see big changes.

The market in which we trade power has been fully integrated into the EU power market. Now, our fossil power plants will have to compete with cheaper renewable energy generators with the ability to generate at zero cost.

These changes in the industry are already becoming apparent in Cork. The ESB announced part closure of one of its less- efficient power plants in Aghada after being outbid in the latest capacity auction.

The Cork Marina power plant will also look to close in the coming years, unable to compete against more efficient and cheaper energy producers.

Ervia is investigating the possibility of using the retired Kinsale gas fields for the storage of the unwanted carbon from the gas-fired power stations in Cork Harbour.

Furthermore, with the push from the EU and industry to electrify our heating and transport sectors, the requirement for the oil refinery in Whitegate may come into question in the future.

The energy market is evolving, yet with planning and foresight Cork is well positioned to ride the wave of the 21st-century energy revolution.

The power available in the ocean and seas surrounding Ireland has massive potential to meet our energy needs and beyond. Ireland’s sea area is 10 times greater than the land area of the island.

In addition to this, consider the location of this island. We have uninterrupted natural forces the length of the Atlantic Ocean landing on our shores. This energy comes in three forms: Offshore wind, waves and tides.

Each of these has a part to play in our energy mix if we are to harness the full potential of marine energy. The power is available, free and clean. The next step is to harness it. There are a number of challenges to overcome, but none are insurmountable and progress is being made.

The first challenge to overcome is to build the technology to withstand the harsh conditions off the coast. The energy convertor, be it wind, wave or tidal, will need to survive the constant bombardment of waves and high winds, including storm waves of over 10m high.

These energy convertors will need to be secured or anchored to the seabed and connected to power cables which will run to the shore. They will, most likely, have mechanical and electrical parts operating in saline conditions, known not to be the most harmonious of partnerships.

Finally, they must have a long lifespan and low maintenance needs as any repair works would be costly. Although this may seem like an extremely difficult task, when we look at the depths and conditions in which we have drilled for gas and oil, there are few challenges engineering cannot overcome if the will and resources are available or when the reward for success is great.

These technical challenges have not deterred the many innovators and engineers currently developing marine renewable energy convertors, with a number of Cork-based developers — Ocean Energy and DP Energy to name just two.

The second challenge of marine energy involves ensuring stakeholder engagement and attaining public support.

ONE of the biggest barriers to onshore wind energy in Ireland over the last two decades has been public objection to wind turbines being installed near communities and disrupting the landscape. Of course, any infrastructure as large as a wind turbine, whether onshore or offshore, needs to be sensitive to its surroundings and environment.

Yet, with better engagement and involvement of communities in the development of renewable energy infrastructure, the support for such infrastructure will increase.

Marine technology won’t be as invasive of the landscape as onshore wind but it will incur other planning hurdles. There will be implications for port infrastructure and grid connections.

They will incur challenges in location; to not disrupt shipping lanes, fishing or marine sport and leisure activities. In some cases, marine renewables will be visible from the shoreline. All stakeholders and community representatives, need to be involved in the decision-making process when we move to deploy marine renewables.

Marine renewable energy will need support from the public. Furthermore, the public needs to better understand the relationship of power used in our own homes and the power plant or wind turbine generating that power.

Communities will need to feel a sense of pride and even ownership of our marine renewable energy industry, moving away from being just passive consumers of energy to active citizens, ensuring our energy comes from clean sources.

The final challenge for the marine renewable industry is to provide the supporting infrastructure. Cork is already making strides in this area.

The city has developed a maritime energy and research cluster in the harbour location of Ringaskiddy. In 2015, Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland, with support from EU funding, SEAI and Science Foundation Ireland, opened a modern marine research facility, the Beaufort Centre in Ringaskiddy.

The centre is home to the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland centre headquarters and Lir National Ocean Test Facility; and located next door to the National Maritime College of Ireland thus making Cork a world-class hub of marine renewables and offshore research and training.

The Lir National Ocean Test Facility includes four large- scale testing tanks, electrical and mechanical workshops and testing rigs. Along with this indoor test facility, Ireland has developed sea-based testing facilities.

The Smart Test Bed in Galway Bay provides relatively calm conditions for the testing of devices at one quarter scale. Furthermore, plans are in place to build a full-scale test site 16km out from Belmullet, Co Mayo.

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HE Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site is ready for construction, having completed all stages of planning and design. If given the go-ahead for construction, the test site will provide some of the most challenging conditions for testing in the world.

Although few devices are ready for such challenging testing conditions, there will be a long lead time to the construction. It is anticipated that by the time the test site is built, the demand from developers for such a facility will be there. This same logic needs to be applied to large infrastructure projects required for the development of the marine energy sector.

A recent study by engineering firm, Gavin and Doherty Geosolutions, investigated the infrastructure gap analysis for the marine energy industry. Its report highlights the challenges faced in deploying large-scale renewable energy (such as offshore wind) from ports and identifies Belfast as the most suitable location for renewable-energy deployment, considering the constraints with respect to land area, high loading capacity and depth of water.

Port of Cork has the potential to be a suitable site for marine energy deployment. Yet it needs to be developed with the foresight for marine energy industry of the future.

Along with the required infrastructure, a strong supply- chain for the industry needs to be incentivised. This can be supported by the existing expertise of Cork’s oil and gas, fishing and shipping industries, as engineering, boating and mooring expertise will be required for the installation and maintenance of the marine energy devices.

Ireland needs to develop the infrastructure to be ready at the same time as the technology. If we have any chance of meeting our renewable energy targets, a complete step change will be required. This infrastructure needs to be developed now. We won’t be able to meet our targets with land-based renewables alone.

The Port of Cork could act as our doorway to our ocean resource. It will need public support as well as financial investment. This can be achieved if we engage all stakeholders, remain sensitive to our environment and recognise the urgency in which we need to develop our marine energy industry.

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