In an unrelated thread, people were asking for my opinion on the Spirit of Ireland (the specific project, not in general). So, at the risk of insulting people, here we go.
The project promises to:
- “[Create t]ens of thousands of jobs
- Achieve energy independence in five years
- Save €30 billion importing fossil fuels
- Create potential to add €50bn to our Economy
- Slash carbon dioxide emissions”
and “[…] help secure European energy supplies” at that.
The secret is pumped hydropower. Wind power is variable and unpredictable and therefore cannot provide more than a certain share of total electricity supply. International studies cap the share of wind at 10%, maybe 20% if you’re lucky. The Government aims for 40%. (This came about after an optimistic study by the Dept Energy concluded that 30% may work, and that 40% is not infeasible.) The Spirit of Ireland wants to go to 100% wind. That means that electricity will have to be stored, so that supply and demand can be matched. The storage method in this case is to use wind power to pump water into a reservoir and use hydropower to generate power.
All this is proven and scalable technology.
The wholesale price of electricity varies quite substantially over the course of the day, by an order of magnitude between peak and trough. This means that one could make a lot of money if one would be able to store electricity for 12 hours or so. The fact that the market is not rushing in to build pumped storage, not in Ireland and not anywhere, is because pumped storage is very expensive and often controversial.
The Spirit of Ireland has not released any detail on their cost calculations. However, reservoirs have been build for thousands of years. 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?
In any case, their costs are private costs. If electricity is 100% wind in the foreseeable future, then all our existing power stations would be sitting idle. A number of them are quite old, but there are a good few new ones as well. This would amount to a destruction of capital that is measured in billions of euros.
Their employment numbers are suspect too. Their plan would destroy thousands of jobs at the ESB, but in return they plan to create tens of thousands of jobs. This does not square with their claim that they would reduce the price of electricity. For one, their labour cost would be 5-10 times as high as the current labour cost. It is also not clear what those tens of thousands of workers would be doing. Perhaps they would build the dams by shovel and wheelbarrow, and when the dams are finished, turn the turbines by hand when there is no wind. There simply is not that much to do.
The aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not clear cut either. Dams use a lot of concrete, wind turbines use a lot of steel and reservoirs generate a lot of methane. This would not reverse the sign, but take away substantially from the gains.
They promise to achieve all this in five years. The problem with that is that they’d need planning permission for turbines, transmission lines, and reservoirs. Five years may just be feasible if they’d start building now.
There is an interesting twist to the reservoirs. The plan is to build these in the west, where geology is indeed suitable. They plan to build the reservoirs with salt water. The environmental impact assessment is thus quite tricky. Under European legislation, they would need to compensate the loss of nature — that is, take a tidal saltwater marsh and turn it into a non-tidal freshwater marsh. Empoldering part of Dublin Bay would qualify, but may run into other objections.
In sum, the Spirit of Ireland is unrealistic in its every aspect.
Unfortunately, if you tell the story enthusiastically enough, there are always people who actually believe you — and this is probably more so in times of doom and gloom.