State needs to stop spending €1m an hour importing fossil fuels, conference told

‘We have outsourced to other countries; Ireland has become a hostage to geopolitics’ — Dr Paul Deane

A national plan to scale up renewables and wean the State off fossil fuels is the missing element in responding to the energy crisis, and responsibility for putting it in place rests collectively with political parties, according to analyst Dr Paul Deane.

The last energy crisis in the 1970s and 1980s was compounded by the Republic being 95 per cent reliant on fossil fuels, most of which were imported, Dr Deane told the annual onshore wind conference of Wind Energy Ireland in University College Dublin on Thursday. Decades later, the State was just under 90 per cent reliant on fossil fuels, which continue to be predominantly imported at a cost of €1 million an hour.

“At its core it’s not an energy crisis, it’s fundamentally a fossil fuel crisis. We are one of the most fossil fuel reliant countries in Europe ... and we need to do something about it.

“We are spending over €1 million an hour paying for oil and gas. Isn’t that ridiculous for the richness that we have in this country in terms of our resources, our renewables, our ability to produce and grow and store energy ... When are we going to wake up to that? It’s an absurdity,” he added.

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Energy did not stop at the end of pipeline or at the end of a table; it affected people’s mental and financial wellbeing, and was at the core of modern society, he noted.

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“And we have outsourced that to other countries. We have given away freedom of choice ... and we’re hostage to the geopolitics that is happening. My message is really simple: we need a plan. We can’t have a dreams-based policy,” said Dr Deane who is based at MaREI, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine at University College Cork.

The Republic was “not short of wind, weather, space, ideas and ambition and ideas”, but they needed to be anchored in a plan. He called on the Oireachtas to establish a vision for the State rooted in reality. Such an approach was deployed before, he said, when it was decided to scale up electricity from renewables on the power grid, which was driven by the 2008 all-Ireland grid study; “a North Star evidence-based plan” progressed in spite of those who suggested it was impossible.

MaREI was modelling how 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind could be achieved by imagining a future when electricity output had to be doubled or trebled in the pursuit of a net-zero carbon Ireland. This required a plan to generate 16-22GW of offshore wind, which was a big ask.

Dr Deane disagreed with the analogy that the State could become “the Saudi Arabia of wind”, because of that country’s poor human rights record and corruption. He favoured the approach of a normal stable democracy such as Norway, which made a plan on foot of its 1960s oil and gas discoveries with “10 commandments of extraction” including environmental considerations and securing benefits to society. This enabled fast-tracking and de-risking of development with the government building infrastructure and being brave in providing passive partnership support, he said.

Interconnectors between countries have a critical role in saving consumers money and in reducing carbon as well as providing options when there was a glut of wind, said Rebecca Sedler director of National Grid Ventures in the UK.

A new phase was imminent with “multipurpose interconnectors” combining with offshore wind farms in a single asset and tied into an offshore converter station. There was potential to link with hydrogen electrolyser technology. This would bring benefits to consumers and the environment, she predicted, and facilitate an offshore grid “to unlock the full green energy potential of the North Sea”. Post 2030, they would be part of “meshed grids” tied into energy islands with reduced impact on the environment and coastal communities.

Chief executive of SuperNode technology company John FitzGerald said that “delivery technology” would dictate the viability of offshore renewable energy (ORE) at scale in Ireland. Given the volume being planned, the Republic needed to support development of strategic technologies and products to become an exporter of what ultimately could be 35GW.

“The business case for ORE will be predicated on markets outside of Ireland,” he added.

Against a backdrop of high energy bills that were set to become even higher, he believed a “whole of Government approach” was needed, led by the Department of the Taoiseach, in a scenario where energy was regarded as a key priority on a par with housing and health. SuperNode was making progress in developing cables with the ability at very low temperatures to transmit power at speed and with no heat loss using superconductors and novel forms of insulation. The concept, which would enable a supergrid to be established over a large area, would be scaled up and proven before being brought to the market after 2030.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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