Scotland and Ireland Consider a Linked Renewable Energy Future

The goal is to build an interconnected network of offshore wind, tidal, and wave energy projects

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Scotland and Ireland Consider a Linked Renewable Energy Future
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The governments of Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland plan to coordinate the development of offshore renewable energy projects in their shared ocean water. The goal is to build an interconnected network of offshore wind, tidal, and wave generation and transmission in the Irish Sea, the straits of Moyle, and the western coast of Scotland.

The countries launched a feasibility study five years ago. It culminated last week in a series of reports including: a business plan; recommendations for how to implement projects; three proposed projects to serve as initial proof of concepts; and a spatial plan that provides guidance to potential developers regarding the best places to install offshore wind, tidal, and wave energy projects.

The area between Ireland and Scotland has the potential to generate around 16.1 gigawatts of renewable energy, including 12.1 GW from offshore wind and 4.0 GW from wave and tidal energy. The ISLES project's initial goal is to connect 6.2 GW of that potential generation by 2020.

The benefits of coordinating the development of offshore projects include “lower costs of harnessing the sizeable renewable energy potential of the ISLES zone, increased capacity for cross-border trade in electricity, improved resilience of onshore and offshore electricity networks, and a range of other benefits for energy consumers and industry,” the authors concluded.

The ISLES project will also play a supporting role in Europe's Energy 2020 Strategy, whose aim is to shift the continent’s energy mix so that it obtains 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. That goal will be part of a long-term plan to decarbonize energy and develop trans-European energy networks.

However, there are significant challenges to implementing the project. At an estimated £5.6 billion ($8.5 billion), the ISLES project will be expensive. In addition, countries have different regulations, incentives, and priorities for funding.

Nonetheless, interconnected electricity grids may make sense, particularly as renewable sources of energy make up an increasing portion of generation.

"There is unstoppable momentum to link renewables on every continent," says Peter Meisen, president and founder of the Global Energy Network Institute, a San Diego-based energy research nonprofit. 

The Africa Clean Energy Corridor Initiative seeks to connect grids in 19 countries in eastern Africa, with a particular focus on tapping renewable energy resources. The NorthSea Grid is a project aimed at connecting offshore energy transmission in the Baltic Sea between neighboring countries. Western Link is a £1 billion ($1.5 billion) project to build an undersea HVDC cable that will connect renewable energy generated in Scotland to the electric grid in the UK. The case has even been made for a global grid.

Connecting national grids makes sense, Meisen says. The interconnections themselves help to “increase operator efficiency and add load leveling and backup power”—a particular boon for rewnewables, he adds. So, if the wind is not blowing off the coast of Scotland, tidal energy from Ireland could fill the gap.

Meisen acknowledges that there are still a number of regulatory issues that need to be worked out. For offshore renewable energy projects, developers will have to make sure that the underwater transmission cables that cross borders abide by each country's rules in regards to water rights, he says.

The ISLES report’s authors highlight other challenges, as well. Rules for selling electricity between countries still have to be worked out, especially because the ISLES project may only make sense for developers if they are able to sell power to a broader range of customers in the UK and the rest of Europe.

To boost cooperation between the countries and developers, the ISLES report’s authors suggest forming a panel that would identify “coordination opportunities and make recommendations to regulators.”

The ISLES report also advocates a step-wise approach for developing the offshore projects and establishing cross-country connections. Because development of such projects is likely to be driven by the market, the authors suggest trying to first coordinate with three already approved offshore projects that could act as so-called "anchor" projects to spur additional development.

The anchor projects—two tidal wave projects in Northern Ireland, each with the potential for 100 megawatts of energy, and a 400 MW tidal project off the Rinns of Islay in Scotland—are slated to have a portion of their rated capacity up and running between 2017 and 2018, with the full projects completed by 2020 or 2021.

In addition to garnering support for the renewable energy projects themselves, pulling it off will require the building of transmission lines that connect electricity grids across national borders. A few are in the works, including two that would link the Irish and Great Britain markets and another to connect Ireland and France. Construction of these HVDC transmission lines are expected to begin as early as 2017.

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