Green Energy from the Emerald Isle

By Sam Hopkins
Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Recently, Irish textbook publisher Folens decided that the term "British Isles" should no longer be used in reference to Great Britain and Ireland. But Irish firm Airtricity is ready to play proximity for profit, branching out from the Emerald Isle and doing steady business next door.

Perhaps even the Isle of Man should have its cartographic independence.

But Man can't do what intrepid Irishmen are doing in the regional energy game.

I'm talking about Airtricity, a wind-farm operator based in Ireland that is now operating in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales.

The company, whose name was originally Eirtricity (Eire is the Irish Gaelic name for Ireland), also has wind farms at various stages of planning and construction in six US states.

Last week, I told you about Scotland's formidable renewable energy goals (government and industry leaders want 40% of the country's electricity to be derived from renewable sources by 2020). Airtricity's head honcho, Dr. Eddie O'Conner, is not green with envy of his Scottish neighbors, and he's not green from inexperience either.

Dr O'Conner was formerly the chief of Bord na Mona, Ireland's primary cultivator of abundant bog peat. Ireland's wetlands are a prolific source of this natural material which, though not quite as renewable as wind, is an easily stored and nearly smokeless fuel option.

So Dr. O'Conner already knew a thing or two about his country's clean power capabilities. Now Airtricity is pushing the whole of Europe a step further.

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Selling the Supergrid

Airtricity's primary business is the construction of onshore wind farms. These complexes of turbines have caused a public furor in many locales where they have been constructed, because despite the environmental hazards of fossil energy, countryside dwellers see the visual obstruction of large pylons as an environmental nuisance of a different sort.

So, like the Scottish wind pioneers I told you about last week, Airtricity is moving things offshore and out of sight.

And they want everyone to do the same.

Airtricity has set forth preliminary plans for the European Offshore Supergrid, which would use High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) technology to connect a network of similar structures from Spain in the southwest all the way to the Baltic States in the northeast.

Having made recent research trips to the Baltics and to the British Isles (or whatever nomenclature you prefer), I can tell you I saw the same potential for energy innovation in both places.

In fact, Airtricity is taking a page from the Baltic book with its cable link idea, as the northeastern European seabed is now a hotbed of grid link-ups and energy efficiency plans.

The Supergrid that Airtricity proposes begins with the establishment of a 10 GW (gigawatt) Foundation Project that would test the Supergrid concept and the science behind it.

This entails 2,000 wind turbines over a 3,000 square kilometer area. At 5 MW (megawatts) of capacity per unit, this pilot project would channel power to the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany.

This 10 GW Foundation Project is no baby step on the way to the Supergrid. Rather, 10 gigawatts is enough to power more than 8 million homes.

With policy turbines now turning at high speeds to broaden each and every European country's energy options, the European Investment Bank should get behind Airtricity and its partners in order to make this plan a reality.

Look for Airtricity to keep up its construction and technological advances while this Irish company nudges its neighbors into a new era.

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