Finding the right energy to power Ireland

Opinion: Challenge to move from fossil fuels to low-carbon supply

‘Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, supplied 17 per cent of our electricity last year thanks to Moneypoint power station on the Shannon estuary.’

‘Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, supplied 17 per cent of our electricity last year thanks to Moneypoint power station on the Shannon estuary.’

Fri, May 30, 2014, 13:48

Pat Rabbitte wants us all to become “energy citizens”, actively engaged in “choosing the appropriate pathway for energy policy” so that Ireland can “realise its potential to be a low-carbon, inclusive, competitive and secure energy society”.

It is anything but secure at present, as his department’s Green Paper on energy policy in Ireland makes clear. We import 95 per cent of our natural gas and 100 per cent of our oil, “leaving the country particularly vulnerable to supply disruptions and to volatility in prices”.

With a liberalised market and higher-priced energy, many of us are already shopping around – buying gas from Airtricity or electricity from Bord Gáis and switching between suppliers. But now we’re being asked to prepare for an unprecedented “energy transformation”.

As the Minister says in his foreword, “energy is the lifeblood of Ireland’s economy and society”. Without a secure supply of energy 365 days per year nothing would work – and we’d be unable to attract and retain inward investment or sustain locally-based enterprise.

The challenges we face, Rabbitte says, can all be addressed by “transforming Ireland’s economy from one based on a predominantly imported fossil fuel to a more indigenous low-carbon economy centred around energy efficiency, renewable energy and smart networks”.

Easier said than done, of course. As the Green Paper concedes, imported oil accounts for nearly 60 per cent of primary energy use in Ireland, and it “will play a strong role in the fuel mix in the medium term”. Plus, we live in hope of finding our own oil offshore.

It kicks to touch on the controversial issue of “unconventional gas exploration” onshore, commonly known as fracking, saying “no decision will be made on proposals” until after the completion by mid-2016 of a comprehensive study by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, supplied 17 per cent of our electricity last year thanks to Moneypoint power station on the Shannon estuary. And with Europe now being “flooded” with cheap American coal, this proportion is likely to rise rather than fall in the short term.

Useful life

The largest single source of Ireland’s carbon-dioxide emissions, the 30-year-old Moneypoint plant is nearing the end of its useful life. Expected to close by 2025, the Green Paper says a decision on its replacement will be guided by “sustainability, competitiveness and security of supply”.

It even presses the nuclear button. Although the addition of a relatively large nuclear plant at Moneypoint “would unbalance the system”, the paper suggests that a smaller “fourth generation” nuclear reactor might be “technically possible” at some stage.

Peat-fired power stations in the midlands have a limited lifespan. These intensive carbon-dioxide factories are due to lose their subsidies between 2015 and 2019 and no extensions are envisaged. Their only hope would be to switch over to burning a mix of peat and biomass.

Since 2003, installed wind power capacity has increased from 209 megawatts across 12 counties to over 2,000 megawatts across 22 counties, thereby requiring a more decentralised electricity grid.

But now plans for more pylons and turbines are highly controversial. So much so that EirGrid, having been inundated by more than 30,000 objections to elements of its €3.2 billion Grid 25 strategy for new and upgraded distribution networks, “has initiated an external review of its consultation processes”, as the Green Paper discreetly puts it.

Energy efficiency is also emphasised, with evidence to show that every €1 million invested in upgrading homes creates 19 jobs and that “every €1 spent on the Better Energy programme delivers a net benefit of €5 to society through energy, CO2 and other pollutant savings”.

As the paper notes, “energy efficiency has long been recognised as the most effective way to control costs, and it is internationally recognised as the most cost-effective approach to reducing greenhouse gas and other air emissions from the energy sector”.

It says there is “much further potential” in this area, in tandem with the forthcoming national roll-out of smart meters, due to start next year. However, this is now “presenting challenges [due to] the ongoing economic crisis [and] scarcity of public funding in general”.

An Taisce pointed out that the number of homes enhanced under the Better Energy Homes scheme “has fallen almost four-fold, dropping from 47,000 in 2011 to only 12,000 in 2013”, while beneficiaries of the Warmer Homes programme have halved, from 20,400 to just 9,800. “As acknowledged by all, the critical first step in energy policy is to stop it being wasted,” said James Nix, the trust’s policy director. “An Taisce welcomes a considered and comprehensive Green Paper, but we cannot afford any fall-off in retrofitting.”

Transport sector

Another challenge is the transport sector, which is almost exclusively dependent on imported oil. Apart from reaffirming faith in electric cars, the Green Paper talks about the need to develop “compact, accessible urban environments” for walking and cycling.

The problem is that we’ve mostly done the opposite, creating low-density suburban housing estates and an unremitting sprawl of housing in the countryside, all of which is inevitably car-dependent for most daily needs.

Indeed, this dispersal is dramatically illustrated by one set of figures in the Green Paper. Ireland has 82m of electricity distribution lines per customer on average – far higher than the European norm and even higher than in sparsely populated northern Scotland.

Submissions on the Green Paper may be made before July 31st by email to greenpaper@dcenr.gov.ie or in writing to Energy Policy and Planning Unit, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, 29-31 Adelaide Road, Dublin 2.

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