Ireland’s major seaports are nowadays organised as commercial State companies – at one time, they were municipal undertakings.

The former Dublin Port and Docks Board, incorporated simply as Dublin Port since 1997, is the largest, and there are significant ports also in Cork and Shannon/Foynes.

A fourth, Rosslare, has a substantial roll-on/roll-off business and is an exception to the independent semi-State model. It belongs to the CIÉ group, which also operates the railway network and the principal bus companies.

Ireland’s marine traffic is increasingly concentrated in a few larger ports and there are two in Northern Ireland, Belfast and Larne, with which the southern ports are in competition. Some smaller ports around the country, including fishery harbours, continue in local ownership, but handle limited traffic volumes.

Offshore wind development

The Government has ambitious plans for offshore wind development, supported by commentators citing the extent of Ireland’s maritime territory and optimism about the opportunity to become ‘the Saudi Arabia of wind’.

However, the economics of the huge investment required have been questioned by the Irish Academy of Engineering in a recent report, which is the only independent assessment to date of the offshore wind plans and the creation of a hydrogen industry that could use offshore wind to produce the new fuel.

The engineers are doubtful that the sums add up. They concede that it is desirable to explore whatever options may be available to speed up the energy transition, and to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but they worry that offshore wind and hydrogen production may be a costly way of doing so.

Of course, electricity from offshore wind could be exported directly. The scale of the wind industry’s offshore ambitions would exceed any likely power demand in Ireland, so exports would be needed to absorb the surplus.

But electricity is already expensive in Ireland, and it is not clear that exports of power generated from offshore wind could be competitive without subsidy.

It has become very difficult to secure planning permission for wind turbines onshore where costs are lower, and there is support from politicians in western and southern coastal constituencies for the push to more expensive developments out to sea.

The wind industry is naturally anxious for Government support, and there are a myriad of avenues through which subsidies could be delivered – including guaranteed prices for power, at the expense of Irish customers, or hidden subsidies on transmission costs, also paid ultimately by customers.

While these manoeuvres may appeal to the industry, which has recently been reluctant to participate in auctions for new generation capacity, the public will hardly be happy about higher Irish prices designed to help exports into markets where prices are lower.

Floating wind farms

A new element has been introduced into the discussion, with proposals that several seaports around the country should be encouraged to get into the business of building the equipment that will be required, should a major offshore wind industry emerge.

These would include floating wind farms, where sea depths are prohibitive, as well as turbines anchored to the sea bed in shallower water.

There would also be a need for extensive offshore transmission infrastructure, a cost imposed on the generation companies in the UK and elsewhere – and for which the Irish companies are not volunteering.

The following ports have been mooted:

  • Rosslare.
  • Waterford.
  • Cork.
  • Shannon/Foynes.
  • Galway.
  • Rossaveal.
  • Killybegs.
  • This is a list which may not be complete.

    A recent report from Wind Energy Ireland urges that State money should be arranged to cover some of the costs and that these ports should soon be making plans.

    Bremore Port

    A new entrant has also emerged in the form of the Bremore Port company, a joint venture involving Drogheda Port and the developer Johnny Ronan.

    Bremore is located up the road from Balbriggan in the Fingal area of north County Dublin, about 35 kilometres from Dublin Port through the existing tunnel and the M1 motorway, a trip which takes about 25 minutes.

    The plan is to build a new port from scratch at Bremore, to handle bulk cargo and ferry traffic, and it would also include a hydrogen plant.

    Dublin Port has released plans for expanded capacity, and the case will need to be made that a new port is needed at all. The press release from Bremore cites the possibility of servicing the offshore wind industry as part of their vision.

    Economic uncertainty

    Adding a new port to the long list of candidates for the fabrication of offshore platform equipment raises the question of how many might be commercially viable, given the uncertainty about the economics of the industry.

    There is already a facility at Belfast port and there is capacity at other ports in the UK and France.

    The Government should be careful about encouraging the Republic’s ports into premature commitments.

    Why not break the planning logjam for cheaper turbines onshore?