Seas of change: Niamh Kenny on spearheading an ambitious project to develop floating wind turbines off north coast

Niamh Kenny, North Channel Wind Director

Niamh Kenny, chief executive of NMK Renewables, is spearheading an ambitious project to develop floating wind turbines off the Northern Ireland coast.

Article by Emma Deighan of the Irish News

The two proposed sites by specialist SBM Offshore, and managed by Niamh’s North Channel Wind project, are nine-to-25km from the eastern coast of the north.

They have huge capabilities to relieve our reliance on fossil fuels and secure our future flow of energy.

What sets Niamh and her team apart in this project is the notable representation of women in the business - a stand-out in an industry traditionally more male-dominant.

“I’m proud that within the North Channel Wind team, a number of our most senior positions are occupied by women,” Niamh says.

She’s been a figurehead in promoting the renewables industry as a viable career option for women and was a member of the all-female panel at a recent International Women’s Day 2023 event for the industry.

Raised in Cork, it appears her journey into renewables was destined.

“I hail from Cork and continue to call it home. Among my siblings - a brother and a sister -I’m the middle child. I’m married with three kids spanning the ages of 10 to 30! I became a parent at the age of 19.”

She continues: “It was a normal background. I studied applied psychology for my degree, then went back and did a masters in business, and that’s been my trajectory ever since.”

At 26, she led environmental initiatives at Blackwater Resource Development and co-developed the ‘eco-village’ concept. In 2004, she founded Exodea Consulting for renewable energy.

Joining DP Energy in 2012, she played a key role in developing a 3GW offshore wind portfolio, now a joint venture with Iberdrola. Currently, her key focus is as project director with North Channel Wind, partnering with SBM Offshore for that potential 1.4GW of floating offshore wind here.

If passed, it would represent the largest renewable energy generator in Northern Ireland. It would connect to the shore via existing power plants at Ballylumford and Kilroot.

Niamh explains: “Our project will be the equivalent of taking 1.8m tonnes of Co2 per year out of the air, equating to the removal of 1.6 million cars off the road. It would also power half of the homes and businesses in NI on its own.”

The time-line stretches until 2030 for North Channel Wind’s completion, but it’s filled with challenges and obstacles, ranging from surveys to planning, that the company must navigate.

It is also challenged by the necessity for new legislation which can only be passed with a functioning Executive.

“While progress is good there are several risks ahead not least the lack of an Assembly whose support we need for legislative purposes,” says Niamh. “Offshore wind requires a new connection policy which cannot proceed without legislation, nor can we provide a decommissioning policy for the wind turbines without legislation.”

She notes that ongoing surveys at the designated sites, covering underwater life and archaeology, aim to inform the relevant organisations about potential effects.

For example, a two-year bird and mammal survey is over the halfway point, showing that the sites are suitable.

A draft marine licence application has also been submitted to carry out marine surveys. Public consultations have been held too.

Perhaps one of the more pertinent issues is the leasing of the area off the coast from the Crown Estate, which is the manager of the seabed.

Northern Ireland missed the last leasing round and North Wind is vying for the imminent fifth round.

Niamh says, so far, the reception to the project has been welcome. She attributes that feedback to “a broader appreciation that the climate emergency is upon us and that we need to rapidly transition from reliance on fossil fuels and embrace the new technologies which will provide emissions-free and reliable electricity”.

In May last year consultations held in Carnlough, Islandmagee and Bangor illustrated how a floating wind farm would look on the horizon.

“It’s a sweet spot there and I’m hopeful. These locations are an obvious win for everyone.

“We’re realistic we could get there, in time for 2030 but right now it’s about the leasing round of the Crown Estate. It’s entirely dependent on it, if they start it this year, that process will be completed next year"

“The Department for the Economy has been brilliant and is aligned in terms of trying to make this work. I can’t say enough about the support we’ve received from all stakeholders, they all realise that this is really important.

“We do anticipate issues with planning. An existing bottleneck will impact things and legislation needed calls for a developed government.

“While it’s ambitious, it’s realistic. This is the project that will secure Northern Ireland’s electricity for years to come and the public must know that too. We need to keep the pressure on the Crown Estate, to get a leasing round in a timely fashion,” Niamh adds.