Yesterday the UK and Irish governments signed an agreement that could see British businesses and consumers funding wind farm developments in Ireland that will export electricity to the UK. As a way of mollifying wind farm critics and keeping costs down, the UK government’s approach is understandable. But the majority of Brits who favour wind power may question why they are paying for jobs in Ireland when unemployment is still at 7.7 per cent at home.
The scale of wind farm development in Ireland that may result from yesterday’s agreement is huge. One project alone, called Greenwire, could see 700 wind turbines with 3GW of generating capacity being built. The UK has a target to generate 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 so this project could contribute a tenth towards that goal.
To enable projects like Greenwire to go ahead the UK Government will need to provide financial incentives to developers. If they use the same approach as has been proposed for developments within the UK, the government will guarantee developers a set price for the energy they produce. The money required to meet this guarantee will come from increases to the energy bills of consumers and businesses.
In one sense this is a sensible move. Despite onshore wind power being the cheapest renewable technology, there is a vigorous campaign against expanding its use in the UK. If the growth of onshore wind is restricted and options for producing renewable electricity are limited to the UK’s borders, more expensive technologies, particularly offshore wind, will be needed as an alternative. The Greenwire developers claim their project will actually save consumers and businesses £7 billion compared with a scenario in which an equivalent amount of offshore wind was built.
So far, so good. But there is a catch: by outsourcing the generation of cheap onshore wind power to Ireland, Britain will miss the opportunity to create good quality jobs, develop skills and secure a comparative advantage in a burgeoning sector with huge global potential. Greenwire alone will create 10,000 new jobs in Ireland during its construction phase and 3,000 jobs in the longer term, so the developers claim. These are jobs that could be going to Brits.
Greenwire is a concrete example of how anti-wind farm campaigns could cost the UK jobs and growth.
Campaigners tend to be concerned about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines on the countryside and this must be taken into account. Less valid, however, are claims often made about the effectiveness of wind power technology. The Institute for Public Policy Research has shown that wind power is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, challenges posed by the variable nature of how much electricity wind farms produce, because the wind doesn’t always blow, are often overstated. This variability can be easily accommodated by the grid, posing no threat of power interruptions, at the levels of deployment expected for the technology by 2020.
The scale of opposition to onshore wind often seems larger than it is. This is because campaigners concerns have been amplified by certain segments of the press and championed by several government ministers including the Energy Minister, John Hayes. In fact most of the UK public consistently supports expanding the use of the technology.
These supporters should get angry if their money is used to support wind farms in Ireland instead of the UK, because major job and economic opportunities will be lost.
Editor's note: The headline of this piece was changed on 25 January at 15:45