Stronger grid and faster planning ‘critical to decarbonising power sector’

Plans and 2030 targets ‘inadequate and need to be stepped up’, notes Wind Energy Ireland report

09/01/2014 - NEWS-  Pylons near New Ross Co Wexford. for Stock, General View, 
Photo: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

The Irish electricity sector can only meet ambitious Government carbon emissions targets by 2030 provided there is “a complete transformation of the planning system and grid policies”, according to a Wind Energy Ireland report.

Produced with energy consultants Baringa and TNEI, it is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the electricity system’s potential carbon budget, which is pivotal to achieving Ireland’s overall emissions targets.

Some progress has been made, it concludes, but existing strategies, plans and targets “are simply inadequate and need to be stepped up”.

It identifies the need to accelerate short-term delivery of onshore wind and solar, enhance grid infrastructure beyond that planned by Eirgrid and replace fossil-fuel backup in power generation.

Power sector emissions could be kept to 66 million tonnes of carbon dioxide at best under current policies between 2021 and 2030, “but only if existing plans for Ireland’s energy system are improved and accelerated”. This, however, amounts to “a substantial overshoot” based on an expected carbon budget for the power sector of 50-55 million tonnes.

Closing the gap requires extensive new grid infrastructure by 2030; ceasing coal and peat electricity production, and connecting large volumes of offshore wind before 2028 — which experts indicate is the earliest date for delivery.

The most demanding Government decarbonisation targets are for the power sector with 80 per cent renewable electricity due by 2030 and net-zero by 2035 — as this is critical to electrifying of other sectors.

WEI chief executive Noel Cunniffe said: “Hitting our 2030 targets, cutting our carbon emissions by 51 per cent, is still just about possible but we are not moving fast enough. The full resources of the State must be brought to bear if the electricity sector is to deliver these savings.”

While offshore wind will be the cornerstone of a future zero-carbon electricity system, Ireland must save carbon emissions as early in the decade as possible and the first offshore wind farm is not expected until 2028, the Bridging the Gap report published on Tuesday says.

“Until then, we will need to rely entirely on faster development of onshore wind and solar which means prioritising these projects in a properly-funded planning system.”

Ireland will need every single project identified in EirGrid’s Shaping Our Electricity Future strategy, yet will still emit more than 70 million tonnes of carbon over the decade, it predicts.

The report identifies additional existing power lines which must be upgraded backed by rapid deployment of smart grid technologies to allow the system to carry more power when the weather is cooler.

Ireland uses gas and coal generators to back up the power system and ensure it remains secure.

“We must start work now to replace these with low and zero-carbon technologies like battery storage, new interconnectors and demand-response technologies which lower electricity demand at times of tight supply,” Mr Cunniffe said.

“The industry has the pipeline of projects, the investment and the expertise to match the ambition ... but cannot succeed without a determined response from every level of Government and the political system,” he noted.

Mr Cunniffe underlined the need for urgency in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and spiralling energy prices.

“Ireland can play a critical role in defending Europe. Not with guns or tanks, but with wind turbines, solar panels and battery storage. We can build an energy-independent Ireland at the heart of an energy secure Europe.” But its grid was designed for a 20th-century fossil-fuel-based economy, he said.

“We need to build critically needed new infrastructure like the North-South Interconnector and we must invest in EirGrid and ESB Networks to ensure the system can, when the wind and solar is available, operate with 100 per cent renewables. Every part of EirGrid’s strategy must be delivered. Anyone opposing it — consciously or otherwise — is undermining our country’s energy security and our economic future.”

EirGrid’s strategy must be improved with new technologies and zero-carbon solutions, Mr Cunniffe said.

“We need more power lines and underground cables to get power from the wind farms and solar farms which will generate it to homes, farms and businesses that will need it.”

Pursuing an accelerated pathway on renewables and using available technologies would ensure a cut of six million tonnes of carbon and deliver €600 million in consumer savings over the coming decade, confirmed Baringa director Mark Turner.

“Our analysis shows that it is not just the end goal for decarbonisation that is crucial, but also how we get there. The pace and timing of renewable deployment over the coming years will have a massive impact on cumulative CO2 emissions, which is how Ireland’s decarbonisation performance will be measured. Substantial ongoing power generation from fossil fuels is rapidly eroding carbon budgets,” he added.

“We show that a renewed effort is needed right now to ensure the fastest possible deployment of onshore renewable energy and a stronger electricity grid. This must be viewed as a national priority if Ireland’s climate ambitions are to be met.”

Jeff Kelliher of TNEI said there was no silver bullet for transforming the power system, “however, early deployment of renewable energy, as well as approaches to allow this energy access to the grid, are imperative”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times