The combustion of coal at Moneypoint is to end by 2025. From an emissions point of view, this is to be welcomed, and by right it should be happening sooner.
However, while the station has been a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it has also significantly contributed to our power generation needs and the economy of County Clare and therefore to the livelihoods of many thousands of people who live there.
While it is clear that we must stop burning coal in Moneypoint, it is equally clear that we need new generation capacity and we also must protect the workers and the economy of Clare.
Moneypoint has excellent infrastructure. Ireland has only two 400kVA transmission lines. Both begin in Moneypoint.
That suggests it still could have a major future in power generation. This is especially important as Ireland moves towards an increasingly electric economy. Currently, oil and gas are the fuel sources for home heating and transport, but in the coming years electricity will power both these sectors to a far greater degree. There is no doubt that we are going to need to generate a lot more electricity than we currently do, and it must be electricity that has zero or near-zero emissions.
A question worth considering is what kind of power generation facility could be located at Moneypoint. We are quickly moving away from coal, peat and oil-fired power generation, but the combustion of methane, commonly known as natural gas, also has large CO2 emissions and we should not be switching to that either. A biomass power plant could be a possibility and some would argue that the deep water berth enhances its potential at Moneypoint. But there is a huge embedded energy and emissions cost in importing biomass from overseas. Recently we have seen An Bord Pleanála shoot down similar proposals for the ailing peat-fired power stations in the Midlands.
A developing technology is a hydrogen power generation plant. Large-scale projects are being trialled overseas. We could be considering the same in Moneypoint. The basic principle is that hydrogen is created using water and electricity, via the electrolysis process. It can be stored in liquid form and at some future point changed back to electricity (and water) via a turbine and generator.
One of the limitations of some renewable energy technologies, particularly wind and solar power, is that we might not need it at the specific time it’s generated, and traditionally we had no way of storing it. It’s been a case of use it or lose it, and that has been a disincentive to the widespread rollout of these forms of renewable energy plants. But hydrogen could be used as a medium for storing great quantities of renewable electricity. Perhaps there is a scenario where very large offshore wind farms and land-based solar farms would send power to Moneypoint, where hydrogen is produced, and in turn used to generate electricity, as it’s needed by the national grid. Or perhaps, in order to mitigate transmission losses, hydrogen would be generated offshore and shipped to a terminal and power generation facility at Moneypoint.
No matter how we harness the energy, the conversion of it from one form to another inevitably involves losses and these proposals would be no different. Ultimately the case for renewable energy paired with hydrogen would be political and economic rather than technical, and it is worth examining, especially if it could allow us to dramatically reduce emissions from power generation.
Hydrogen is also likely to be an important fuel in transport. There are lots of trials into hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, particularly busses and trains, but also cars. Some breakthroughs recently suggest that the future of shipping may be powered by hydrogen. Could the west of Ireland, with its vast renewable resource, be home to a major hydrogen production and export facility?
To consider further prospects for Moneypoint, whether linked with hydrogen or not, there are certainly opportunities in the offshore wind sector. Currently, all proposals to harness this abundant resource are to develop projects in the relatively calmer and shallower waters off the east coast. But advances are being made in the durability of offshore wind technology and the Atlantic coast presents a major opportunity for Ireland.
With its deepwater berth, could Moneypoint become a base for offshore wind deployment or a hub for the maintenance and repair of turbines? Or has it a future in wind turbine manufacturing? It is argued that as an island nation, without the necessary industrial base and supply chains it makes more sense to import our wind technology. But in an era of wind becoming a major part of the energy mix in Ireland and internationally, should we be reconsidering this position? We have a choice now of letting the Danes and the Germans dominate this lucrative sector, or we can begin to look at doing it in Ireland with a view to developing a healthy and profitable sector in the coming decades. With its long jetty lending itself to blade construction and transport, Moneypoint may be the place to do it.
We can and should be hopeful for Moneypoint, but we must also make courageous decisions to help it transition to a clean, rewarding future. Nearly a century ago, with the development of the Ardnacrusha power station on the other side of the county, some visionary politicians and engineers set County Clare as the stage for one of the greatest achievements of the new nation. Might Clare once again be the backdrop for the great, new challenge we face?