Britain looks to Emerald Isle coast for green power

By Robin McKie

Unspoilt - the rugged Donegal coastline at Bloody Foreland. Photo / Tourism Ireland
Unspoilt - the rugged Donegal coastline at Bloody Foreland. Photo / Tourism Ireland

Ireland's unspoiled, windswept west coast could become the focus of a new wave of wind farm construction.

UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and other senior members of the British-Irish Council have discussed a plan to expand electricity grid connections throughout the British Isles.

In particular, they want to build new inter-connectors to link the grids of Ireland and Britain to transmit power from new wind farms in Ireland to England.

The aim of the plan, created by the British Government, is to open up remote regions that could provide Britain with more power generated by wind, as well as by tide and wave plants, to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

"The west coast of Ireland has some of the fiercest winds in Europe," said Charles Hendry, the UK Energy Minister.

"They whip in off the Atlantic, which makes it an ideal location for wind farms. However, the Irish market for electricity is less than a tenth that of Britain and companies cannot afford to build wind farms in Ireland because there is no market for their power. We want to put that right."

The construction of wind farms in Ireland that would supply power to neighbouring countries could help to put the UK back on track in its use of clean, renewable energy. Britain has recently been criticised for falling short of its targets for constructing wind power plants and cutting carbon emissions. Importing clean power could help resolve the problem. A link connecting the grids of Ireland and Britain is under construction from Rush North Beach, Co Fingal, to Barkby Beach, north Wales.

The Irish Sea Inter-Connector will cost £500 million ($984 million) and have a capacity of 500MW. The scheme would open up a market for electricity for wind farms on the west coast of Ireland whose power could be transmitted under the Irish Sea.

Such developments would be controversial, however. Construction of wind turbines generates strong opposition and plans to build clusters in mainland Britain have been greeted with fury. Opponents say wind turbines rarely work to capacity; spoil some of the country's most beautiful landscapes; and kill large numbers of wild birds.

Supporters argue they help to reduce dependence on carbon-emitting fossil-fuel plants and are non-polluting. Nevertheless, the prospect of giant turbines peppering the wild, craggy coasts of the Dingle Peninsula, Kerry and Galway will provoke a furious response.

Hendry rejected the idea that the turbines would be controversial in Ireland, however. "It will be up to the Irish Government and the Irish people to decide if they want to build them. This is a voluntary programme and it could bring significant wealth to the country with little downside."

The All Islands electricity plan is not confined to Ireland and Britain. The British-Irish Council meeting - which will also be attended by Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, and leaders of local governments in Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man - considered a number of proposals to modernise the British Isles' electricity grid.

Some of these focus on existing onshore and offshore wind turbines, while others anticipate the construction of wave and tidal power generation schemes. The islands of Islay and Orkney have already been targeted as promising sites for tidal plants.

However, all sites suffer from being remote. "Some of the best resources for generating tidal power lie in waters off the Channel Islands," said Hendry. "But as things stand, there is no way to get that power to mainland Britain.

"We need to look at building a new inter-connector with France, taking it from the new nuclear power station being built at Flamanville, via the Channel Islands, to the UK."

Hendry said earlier discussions indicated the plan would be well received. Once various proposals had been discussed, detailed analysis would be carried out over the next 18 months.

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