Can Ireland ever become energy independent?
It’s a question that one entrepreneur and a team of construction and environmental engineers, hydro-geologists, construction experts, accountants, lawyers and financiers believe they have answered. And if they are right in believing it is possible The Spirit of Ireland project (see www.spiritofireland.com) not only end our 90% dependence on imported fossil fuel, but also eventually pay financial dividends to individuals and communities that invest in the project.
Led by entrepreneur and electrical/electronics engineer Graham O’Donnell and inspired by Trinity College Professor of Applied Physics Igor Shvets, the Spirit of Ireland wind and hydroelectric project is aiming to replace n3 billion worth of imported fossil fuel into this country each year within five years. It could also eventually result in the export of surplus energy to the UK and the continent and act as a magnet for inward foreign investors.
By September, the Spirit of Ireland preliminary research will be complete says Mr O’Donnell, and a report will be released outlining the next phase, at the heart of which will be a consultative process with the people of Ireland on a local and county basis. “Without the willingness of the Irish people to harvest the wind, this project will not happen,” O’Donnell admits.
For anyone not familiar with this scheme, it involves identifying at least three Atlantic glacial valleys between west Cork and Donegal that would be suitable for the creation of hydro storage reservoirs in which wind turbines will drive Atlantic seawater up into the naturally formed valley reservoirs.
The water in the reservoir is then allowed to flow back down to the sea, driving turbines, from which is created a constant supply of cheap power that will flow through the national electricity grid.
About 2500 wind turbines in wind farms around the country will be required to maintain the surge of electricity that is generated by the three hydro storage reservoirs on the west coast, and communities and their local county council representatives will be canvassed for their views and ultimately, their consent in the building of the wind farms. This ambitious project has set itself a five year target date to have the first turbines up and running and generating electricity.
Spirit of Ireland estimate that the project will cost n10 billion euro, of which they hope to raise n3billion from Irish pension funds, n1 billion from the National Pension Reserve Fund, n1 billion directly from the Irish public and an additional n5 billion from global sovereign wealth funds. This money will be raised in the form of a ten year initial private bond issue (as opposed to a public flotation on the stock market) with an annual ‘coupon’or interest payment. They say they are determined that ownership of this important energy resource remains in Irish hands for the benefit of the Irish people. They currently estimate that it will create in the region of 82,000 direct and indirect jobs (both from construction of the sites, the extension of the electricity grid, which will require extra funding, as well as manufacture of material and parts and provision of the myriad services that are involved in such a huge national project).
A large proportion of this money will be spent directly in Ireland, they say, using Irish manufacturers and suppliers: “This technology already exists and is up and running in places like Finland and Japan,” says O’Donnell, “ but there are Irish firms that are already making some of the components and parts that are needed and we are bringing them on board.”
The funding details remain sketchy – though they estimate it will cost n800 million to build each of the three 1000 gigawatt turbine stations – and raising the n10 billion seed capital will be a challenge in today’s environment. O’Donnell says he has already received positive support from the government and all the political parties (the government will play a back seat in the scheme he claims) but ultimately the Spirit of Ireland will happen only if it gets the cooperation, not just of the wider financial community, but the community of citizens who will have to accept the establishment of the wind farms in their town lands and counties.
O’Donnell insists that within a year a national energy atlas will be in place that will determine where the wind farms will be needed – consultation will begin from September - but that they expect there will be a “huge financial payback” for local and county authorities who do participate.
Ordinary investors, as bond holder receiving a set annual return, will not have the same profit opportunities that might arise if they were to buy oil or energy company shares directly, or a managed fund of alternative energy stocks.
But bonds can be a profitable part of any well balanced investment portfolio and if this project works out as its developers are confident it will, the Spirit of Ireland bond should appeal to anyone keen not only to see a payback for their community (and country) but for themselves and their families as well.