View from Brussels: Emerald green deal boosted

A massive undersea electricity cable linking Ireland’s power grid to France secured vital planning permission earlier this week, meaning the Emerald Isle will soon be tethered to mainland Europe.

The Celtic Interconnector has long been in the works. Since Brexit, the project has enjoyed a boost in political support, as it will be Ireland’s only physical power connection to an EU member state once it is completed.

In terms of capacity, the cable will be able to handle 700 megawatts – roughly enough to power nearly half a million homes – and will also carry a fire-optic link that will improve communication services.

Costing nearly €1 billion, the EU has met more than half the costs through its dedicated cross-border infrastructure fund. France and Ireland are picking up the rest of the bill.

Michael Mahon from Ireland’s grid operator said: “This brings us one step closer to the many benefits this project will bring, including improving the security of electricity supply, helping to achieve our climate objectives and reducing the cost of electricity.”

The interconnector’s backers are now moving onto the construction phase of the project. Converter stations need to be built in Cork and Brittany, while specialised ships will lay the cable along the seabed. The connection is supposed to come online in 2026.

France has been an enthusiastic advocate for the project, which is to some extent a surprise, as its government has been accused of dragging its feet on less ambitious connectors that would link its grid to the Iberian peninsula.

That is because Emmanuel Macron’s administration is keen to position France as a clean energy exporter – fuelled largely by its huge nuclear power station fleet – rather than an importer or transit country.

More cross-border trade of electrons would require France to pay out billions to upgrade and maintain its grid, as well as losing out on fees made selling its own power. Not an enticing prospect for Macron.

Spain and Portugal have immense renewable power potential and both governments there are quickly ramping up their wind and solar targets. Ireland, meanwhile, has not been as enthusiastic in embracing the transition.

That state of affairs has not been lost on some Irish commentators who have criticised the government for continuing to prohibit nuclear power but being all too eager to pay for the interconnector so French fission can be imported.

Nevertheless, the Irish have big renewable ambitions particularly in the wind sector.

Wind Energy Ireland, a trade body, said that the project’s planning approval was “fantastic news” and called the Celtic Interconnector “absolutely essential to ensuring a secure supply of electricity and to helping us decarbonise Ireland's energy supply.”

The government is targeting 30GW of wind capacity by 2050, which means a huge increase on the current 4GW that is installed. Increasing the export capacity with an interconnector will almost certainly boost investments.

A viable export market for when Ireland’s grid cannot handle more wind power means that turbines do not need to be switched off and operators do not have to invest in expensive storage facilities. It can be traded with a power-hungry continental market.

Appetite for the Celtic Interconnector has also grown in recent months as the UK government continues to threaten to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, a chapter of the EU trade deal that is supposed to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement.

That has already led to a number of adverse knock-on effects, including the continued lockout of UK-based researchers from the EU’s Horizon Europe funding. The interconnector is a safety net of sorts.

It is also one of many large-scale cable projects in the works. Belgium’s Nemo link with the UK is now firing on all cylinders, a planned cable between British shores and Germany’s is due to be completed in 2024 and there is even a record-breaking link with Morocco on the books.

If built, the cable would run more than 2,000 miles to Devon, allowing UK homes to be powered with solar energy. Its advocates say that it is even a cheaper option than building new nuclear reactors.

Project planners will have to overcome significant hurdles such as permitting, sourcing 90,000 tonnes of steel to make the cable and navigating – figurative – uncharted waters when it comes to laying such a long cable.

The payoff could be huge.

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