Limerick: Harnessing the green energy of Shannon estuary

Pat Keating of Shannon Foynes Port Company explains why the natural resource has the potential to be the hub of Europe’s largest bank of renewable energy

Pat Keating, chief executive of Shannon Foynes Port Company pictured at Limerick Port. Picture: Arthur Ellis

The potential for Shannon estuary to become one of Europe’s leading renewable energy hubs thanks to its unique natural infrastructure is almost undeniable, but “time is of the essence”.

That’s the emphatic assertion of Pat Keating, chief executive of Shannon Foynes Port Company, the key enabler of this unprecedented opportunity for the region and state.

The port authority operates Foynes and Limerick ports and has statutory authority over all marine activities on a 500km2 area on the estuary from Kerry to Loop Head and right up to Limerick city.

Its impact on the midwest region and beyond is already telling; Ireland’s largest bulk port and second largest port company influences the lives of pretty much every citizen across the region through its huge cargo volumes annually. Whether it’s the fuel powering transport or the grassland seeds that help raise farm animals, it’s a safe bet to say there isn’t a household not impacted each day.

But last December it accelerated into a new lane entirely as it set the wheels rolling on a plan to turn the estuary into a national and international energy powerhouse that will deliver a scale of transformation that few could anticipate.

For some, the scale is so great that it almost requires a double take.

Thanks to new technology, the Atlantic Ocean and winds that have chiselled and battered coastal counties and its people at times into near submission, now combine in all their awesome power to potentially turn Ireland into an international energy exporter.

According to the report, we have 70,000MW of energy waiting to be captured offshore by emerging floating offshore wind technology. Realising that potential will result in up to €12 billion of investment being channelled into the estuary by 2050 under a medium growth scenario and without including export potential to other markets.

It’s enough to deliver Ireland’s climate charge targets and multiples more besides. Enough to generate a conservatively estimated 30,000 jobs in manufacturing and supply-chain in the wider region. Enough to deliver on the ambition of Project Ireland 2040 for balanced regional development.

The robust technology of these giant turbines is such that they are able to withstand the battering of the Atlantic winds and bring that energy onshore. The turbines ideally need sheltered deep waters for assembly, hence the Shannon Estuary with some of the deepest estuarial waters in Europe.

The jobs will come largely in the supply chain, as the turbines become mounted on giant concrete or steel platforms before being pulled out to distances beyond where the human eye can see but where the wind blows powerfully on even the calmest days onshore.

But the opportunity from what has the potential to be Europe’s largest bank of renewable energy to attract FDI investment, not least in high energy-consuming data centres, adds another layer of excitement.

Fixed offshore wind farms have already proven successful over the last 15 to 20 years, Keating said, in the North Sea for countries like Britain and Norway and, indeed, with our own Arklow Bank wind farm over on the east coast.

“The industry, and like all technologies, is looking for more efficiencies and more scale and that’s where the Atlantic floating offshore comes in. Floating offshore gives you a further step change in capacity generation and is more efficient than what you would have with your typical fixed offshore wind farms,” Keating said.

Clare coast joint venture

If the story was almost too good to be believed in December, it wasn’t in April when Equinor, the world leader in floating offshore wind, announced a joint venture with the ESB to build a floating wind farm off the Clare coast.

Better again, they are going to use that renewable energy to create green hydrogen – the ‘fuel of the future’ that is predicted to displace fossil fuels for heavy goods vehicles.

Despite having an unrivalled opportunity thanks to our natural infrastructure, others have got ahead, such as the Hywind Scotland development. But if we’re to catch up and claim first we must invest in infrastructure to make the port and estuary the enablers that we need.

“The wind resource that we have on the Atlantic is a mean wind speed of 12 metres per second, which is considered one of the best globally,” Keating said.

“For the wind developers and joint venture partners, it’s an opportunity at a level that you could only dream about. The very fact that the most advanced companies in the world in this sector are looking to develop here says a lot about the opportunity. But we must make the most of it,” he said.

“It’s essential to locate your large-scale supply chain as close as you can to the offshore wind farm and that’s where the Shannon Estuary and deep-water ports come in. If you don’t have that proximity, you are looking at higher costs for operating. That’s why the estuary here ticks all the boxes.”

Keating said the energy produced would exceed the current needs of the country but would prepare it for future surges in electricity demand, including high energy consuming data centres.

“There’s a big concern about demands that data centres place on the grid. There is a solution to that, and again this is developing this offshore resource. The estuary can be a hub for this. Create the energy offshore and bring it onshore to support data centre investment on a world scale.”

There are, however, significant hurdles to jump to realise this enormous opportunity, especially around the area of planning and consents.

“Currently we have an outdated Foreshore Act 1933, which was never written for this type of stuff. Currently we have no foreshore consenting regime beyond 12 nautical miles, so you really have no formal system of consent to apply to. That, number one, needs to be resolved.”

The government’s Marine Planning and Development Management bill and new agency Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, or Mara, will go some way to addressing those concerns, he said.

He pointed to Britain, the Netherlands and Norway as examples of countries with robust consent processes that give clarity to developers.

“It’s essential that we take this opportunity, as other countries with a lot less going for them, that don’t have the wind, the deep estuarial waters, will take it if we don’t – and they already are.

“Projects will go elsewhere. People will invest their money elsewhere because all these big companies have funds allocated for project investment. We need to get up to speed fast because time is of the essence. We still have that time, but we really need to get moving.”