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Mayo wave power

Standing in the safety of Killerduff, watching the awesome power of Mayo’s Wild Atlantic waves crashing over Downpatrick Head, got me thinking of the terrifying conditions only seafarers witness as they work the high seas to earn a precarious livelihood.

Powerful waves driven by huge Atlantic swells pound the Mayo coastline for most of the year. Over millennia these massive breakers have sculpted and shaped the most spectacular cliff scenery in Ireland, making Mayo one of the most popular destinations along the Wild Atlantic Way tourism trail.

Windsurfers, too, are coming to the county’s surf hot spots in growing numbers to ride winter storm waves that are often over 15 metres high.

Artists, photographers and writers continue to find inspiration from the precipitous cliffs with dizzying views rising to over 240 metres overlooking sea stacks, islands, and mysterious and inaccessible coves and sea caves.

As I looked towards Dún Briste that January morning, waiting for the cloud cover to break between each quickly passing icy, hail squall, my fingers numbed on the camera shutter.

Every few minutes, the sky darkened as another ferocious squall raced in from the North West and a sudden veil of greyness descended, hiding Dun Briste and Downpatrick Head.

The squall quickly gave way to clear blue skies revealing sparkling waves tossing in a heaving, dark green sea with troughs as deep as a canyon.

I tried to steady the camera so that I could capture that moment when the head of an avalanche of water suddenly rises level with the 45 metres high Dún Briste before sweeping in a cloud of surf and spray over Downpatrick Head in a display of unforgettable natural power.

Wave energy

A windsurfer riding the enormous waves off Kilcummin, Co Mayo, during a winter storm. Photo Anthony Hickey
A windsurfer riding the enormous waves off Kilcummin Head, Co Mayo, during a winter storm. Photo Anthony Hickey

The extremely powerful waves that morning were generated far out in the ocean by Storm Fionn.

As the swell came up against the North Mayo coast it refracted in the shallower water and reefs, bending around Dún Briste, before unleashing an explosion of uncontrollable energy as the wave crashed violently into the wedged-shaped headland.

My thoughts turned to consider the enormous potential of Mayo’s off-shore wave energy at a time when Europe is setting targets and deadlines for energy from marine resources.

Watching the awesome power of Mayo’s Wild Atlantic waves washing over Downpatrick Head, I knew that there was a plan to convert wave energy into electricity and feed it into the national grid. I wondered how the project was progressing.

The dream of harnessing Mayo’s wave power began in 2011 when Annagh Head off The Mullet was selected as The Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site (AMETS).

Senator Michelle Mulherin: We have some of the best wave and wind resource in the world.
Michelle Mulherin: We have some of the best wave and wind resource in the world.

Harnessing the raw energy of these huge waves driven towards our coastline by wind and sea swell would put Mayo in the vanguard of Ireland’s marine energy generation and create jobs in an area with few opportunities.

An SQW Energy study in 2011 for the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland forecast that the island of Ireland ocean energy sector could be producing a net present value of €9 billion, creating several thousand jobs, by 2030.

The plan for the Annagh Head wave energy site envisaged submarine electricity cables bringing the power captured by full-scale wave energy converters ashore at Belderra Strand, about 16 km from the offshore test site.

Testing off Annagh Head involving ESBI and Sustainable Energy Ireland did go ahead for a number of years using full-scale wave energy converters as part of Ireland’s Ocean Energy Strategy.

With the EU setting a target of 100 gigawatts of energy from marine resources by 2050, this looked like a golden opportunity for Ireland and especially Mayo.

In limbo

A wave breaking over the 67 metre high Eagle Island off the North Mayo coast. Photo Anthony Hickey
A wave breaking over the 67 metre high Eagle Island off the North Mayo coast. Photo Anthony Hickey

Sadly, the Annagh Head site is now in limbo.

In the intervening years, the testing had come to a halt, prompting Mayo Fine Gael Senator Michelle Mulherin to now call for the project to be restarted as Ireland faces huge challenges in meeting its renewable energy targets, and avoid paying fines to the EU for unmet targets.

Senator Mulheirn, who is Fine Gael’s Seanad Spokesperson on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is a leading voice for the development of renewable energy sources in Ireland and in particular her native Mayo.

“It is imperative that Government supports are put in place for offshore wind, wave, solar and bioenergy projects including microgeneration in a new refit scheme which is urgently required”, Senator Mulherin told me.

“Considering that we have some of the best wave and wind resource in the world, this is common sense”, Senator Mulherin continued, adding: “Investment in renewables is investing in a sustainable green future and there is now- more than ever- also a compelling economic argument for doing so.”

Senator Mulherin who has been appointed to the newly-established Special Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, pointed out how developing alternative ways to achieve renewable energy targets, and the research and development it would support would help develop new technologies which can have a positive economic and jobs spin-off.

“Such investment would be better now than paying fines to the EU for unmet targets,” she told me.

One of the global leaders in engineering, Siemens, estimated that Ireland’s offshore and onshore wind, wave and tidal resource accounted for one-third of all such potential in western Europe.

Surely, this is an opportunity Ireland cannot miss and Mayo has every reason to hope it will be at the centre of the development of renewable marine energy sources.

Mayo’s wild Atlantic waves have shaped so much of our past – we now have the opportunity to harness the waves to power our future.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.