From turf to turbines Irish energy goes green

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | March 16, 2012 | Energy Policy, Wind

A few years ago, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, I blogged about a little known ‘cub’ of the oft-described ‘Celtic Tiger:’ the fast-growing Irish wind energy industry. As the calendar once again approaches March 17th, and everyone in the U.S. prepares to celebrate all things Irish tomorrow, I felt it was high time for a wind update from the Emerald Isle and their British neighbors.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ireland’s first utility-scale wind farm in County Mayo.  In those two decades, Ireland has installed more than 1700 megawatts (MW) of wind.  As a result, tiny little Ireland ranks 16th in the world for installed capacity.  Even though they slipped from 15th in 2009, they nearly kept pace with the global average of 21 percent increase in installed capacity in 2011 despite continued economic turmoil.

Ireland’s neighbor across the Irish Sea, Great Britain, experienced even greater growth last year with 3 percent of the world’s new installed capacity in 2011 (noted in the chart to the left). The UK’s numbers are sure to grow even more in 2012 as the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Walney, began operations last month with more than 100 turbines generating enough power for 320,000 homes. Moreover, Britain’s offshore capacity could double in the next few years as 15 offshore farms are currently operating off the coasts of Britain and 13 more are planned.

While it seems inevitable today that island nations like Ireland and the UK would harness offshore and coastal winds, this is a recent phenomenon. Ireland has harvested turf from peat bogs for millenia and both Ireland and Britain have mined coal for more than a century.  It’s fair to say that a culture as closely associated with green as Ireland is has only begun to green their energy production in the past few decades.  One place in Ireland where the evolution from turf to coal to turbines is visible is near the tiny town of Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim, Ireland.

There used to be a rich coal seam beneath the ancient peat bogs on Kilronan Mountain. It took only a century of mining to clear the usable coal, and the last mine closed in 1995. Before, during and after the coal was mined, local residents would cut and dry the turf on top of the ridge as fuel for household fires.  Today a small wind farm sits on the land above the closed mine. On a visit there last summer, I found chunks of coal among the rubble wherever the ground has been disturbed as well as evidence of turf cutting in and among the turbines.  This little corner of Ireland graphically illustrates how polluting sources energy are giving way to a clean and green energy future – inspiration indeed for those who want to celebrate Irish history, heritage and clean energy leadership on March 17th!

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