Nearly a quarter of the UK's electricity generation capacity needs to be replaced by 2020. This requires investments of some GBP100bn by 2020 for power plants alone. At the same time, it seems that the UK might miss its 2020 targets for renewable energy. Building wind farms in Ireland could boost the Irish economy, and the UK could import green power, but only if local communities do not object.
On June 20, the British-Irish Council agreed to go forward with its All Islands Electricity Plan. Part of that plan envisions the building of wind farms in Ireland, potentially on the west coast. Wind farm developers must have been surprised to hear Charles Hendry, the UK energy minister, say that the voluntary program could bring substantial wealth to Ireland, with very little downside.
Some British citizens do not seem to share his view on wind farms having few disadvantages. Fierce opposition in England and Wales has led to significantly lower planning success rates than in Scotland and Northern Ireland. While the lead time of 26 weeks for receiving planning permission is among the shortest in Europe, 75% of planning applications get refused in the UK.
Currently, wind farm developments with a capacity of 6.5GW are in the planning pipeline, whereas the annual build rate has been in the order of 525MW for some years, hardly making up for the 10GW of coal-fired power stations that will have to be closed due to the Industrial Emissions Directive.
Hence it is understandable that ministers look further afield for inspiration and solutions, and Ireland is a promising prospect. It has excellent wind resources, the technical and financial skills required, and studies show that two-thirds of Irish adults do not oppose wind farms being built in their locality.
In spite of early positive experiences, building wind farms in Ireland is anything but straightforward today. Even if the developers receive planning permission, this expires after five years, and it can take up to six years to process a grid connection application, leaving the developers in limbo. New wind farms, especially when in remote areas, require substantial investments in infrastructure, such as grid extensions and interconnectors, and the attitudes of Irish local authorities are inconsistent.
Public attitudes towards wind farms have changed, too. Local representatives will support local opposition rather than outside developers. If the British government really were to finance wind farms in Ireland, the developers must communicate with the local communities from the very outset and secure public buy-in to avoid similar planning rejection rates to England and Wales.