Arno Verbeek hopefully isn’t having the feeling he is seeing history repeating itself. Almost 20 years ago, Verbeek was a key player at the start of Ireland’s offshore wind journey when he led development of the country’s first project, Arklow Bank Phase 1, which was among the largest in the world at 25MW when it entered service in 2004.
Today, he is back helping steer that voyage in his current role as project director of the Codling Wind Park, which – if circumstances allow – aims to take its place as not just Ireland’s largest offshore wind farm at up to 1.5GW, but arguably the nation’s biggest ever infrastructure project, by the end of the decade.
The fear of any feeling of déja vu resonates in Verbeek’s assertion to Recharge that 2022 is “the critical year” for Irish offshore wind and is easily explained by a glance at the amount of capacity added since those first heady Arklow Bank megawatts – which is precisely zero.
While neighbouring Great Britain, and other markets such as the Netherlands and Germany, forged ahead, Ireland stalled early in the decade before last, a situation Verbeek describes as “amazing to think about” and a “huge, missed opportunity” for a nation blessed with some of Europe’s best waters for offshore wind.
Now, however, Verbeek is hoping Ireland will finally make up for lost time. Codling – a 50/50 joint venture between French energy giant EDF and Norway’s Fred Olsen Seawind – is among a first wave clutch of fixed-bottom ‘relevant projects’ Ireland hopes can rapidly get steel in the water and help it meet a national goal to have 5GW installed offshore by 2030.
Verbeek and others in the sector have taken encouragement from moves by Irish environment minister Eamon Ryan’s launch of the process for Maritime Area Consent, which should give the first wave of projects a much-needed route to secure seabed rights.
But while that is an “important step for the industry”, the Codling chief is more concerned about what follows.
'Very tight to hit targets'
Meeting Ireland’s ambitions to see Codling and other projects in the water late in the decade will, Verbeek believes, be “very tight” and only achievable if Ireland’s politicians and authorities apply a “sense of urgency” akin to that shown in the Covid crisis.
“I’m hoping for the same sense of urgency when it comes to accelerating these significant infrastructure projects.”
Verbeek’s “number one” concern is grid access, with fears that network operator EirGrid lacks the resources and expertise to become, from a standing start, a destination for vast amounts of offshore wind power.
Ireland’s planning regime is another worry. Major infrastructure projects are supposed to get a consent decision within 18 weeks. “It’s been more like 50 or 60 weeks,” Verbeek wryly noted. The planning authorities in Ireland will soon have to make informed decisions on not one, but potentially five or six huge offshore wind projects.
“Agencies and government departments are struggling to bring in people with experience to look at complex projects,” he said.
Then there is the fact that newly-consented projects will be potentially subject to judicial review proceedings, similar to the actions that have held up progress on some of the biggest North Sea wind farms planned off the UK.
All this uncertainty needs to be priced-in to a certain extent.
Those concerns – grid access, planning delays, legal challenges – take on added significance when you consider that Ireland is in the fourth quarter of this year expected to launch its first offshore wind auction, a process that Verbeek says the first wave of projects will enter with a level of risk that “you wouldn’t see that in other jurisdictions”.
“All this uncertainty needs to be priced-in to a certain extent,” said Verbeek, pointing to other markets such as the Netherlands and UK that have already staged several auctions.
“Everywhere you see the first auctions will always be the highest costs. There are risks that will disappear over coming auctions. I expect the same to happen in Ireland.”
And for all his concerns, Verbeek is convinced that on climate grounds, and now also the energy independence imperative given by the “terrible events in Ukraine”, there has never been a better moment for Ireland to regain the momentum lost nearly two decades ago
“I wouldn’t have come back to Ireland if I didn’t think this was the right time.”
Noel Cunniffe, CEO of industry body Wind Energy Ireland, shares Verbeek’s concerns over both the grid and planning obstacles facing Ireland’s dash to 5GW by 2030, by when offshore wind is supposed to be playing a key role in meeting a beefy national goal for an 80% renewable share of electricity generation, and has also been tipped to find a willing customer in the nation's booming datacentre sector.
“Any one of these [offshore wind] projects would be among the largest infrastructure projects in the history of the state,” said Cunniffe, while the Irish grid is fast approaching “pinch points” even without the prospect of new gigawatt-scale generation looming on the horizon.
Nevertheless, Cunniffe is convinced the “political will” is now present to drive offshore wind forward, with the first wave of fixed bottom projects set to be followed by what could be some of Europe’s largest floating developments.
Wind Energy Ireland reckons that there is “20GW of offshore wind projects in development right now, all of them hoping to contribute to the 5GW target”.
That includes eight floating projects. “We think one or two of them could connect pre-2030” as part of a second wave of developments.
With so much water under the bridge since Arklow Bank 1, “these are exciting times,” said Cunniffe. Having seen what has unfolded over the past two decades, Verbeek, for one, hopes they continue to be.