Electricity capacity predicted to rise 40% with emissions halved by 2030

UCC energy institute warns of need for agile system due to weather-dependant generation

Weather data underlines “the importance of being able to export and import energy through the interconnectors during high and low wind periods”, says the MaREI energy institute in UCC.

By 2030, the electricity system on the island of Ireland will be 40 per cent larger in capacity but emit half the carbon emissions of today, according a report on how the power network will look in coming decades.

The Our Zero e-Mission Future report by the MaREI energy institute in UCC indicates all planned electricity interconnectors – North-South, Ireland-UK and Ireland-France – will be in place by the decade's end, while "back-up generation fuelled by natural gas will be essential but used less" .

The report was commissioned by the Electricity Association of Ireland which represents the electricity industry and the gas retail sector.

Published on Friday, it underlines the need to ensure a more flexible and agile system, notably during cold, windless and cloudy conditions where electricity demand is high but weather dependant generation is low.


The all-Ireland single electricity market “will need all back-up generation to be available and all storage and system flexibility to be maximised”. That will also ensure demand from new electricity loads arising from electric cars, residential heating and data centres is met, it finds.

MaREI undertook modelling of the power system based on achieving the renewable energy target of 70 per cent for electricity consumption by 2030, on the way to full decarbonisation in following years.

Using publicly available data, it took into account technical and system constraints while factoring in security of supply requirements.

EAI chief executive Dara Lynott said: "This report is a postcard from the future and sets out the challenge we face of swapping the petrol in our cars and the kerosene in our boilers for plugs. If we can meet this challenge, we can take the carbon out of our economy as we take the carbon out of electricity generation."

Climate targets

Sustained decarbonisation of Ireland’s electricity sector was of fundamental importance for achieving climate targets “as this is the foundation of decarbonisation in many sectors”, he added.

A recent McKinsey study , he noted, put the challenge of societal decarbonisation as increasing electrification by 1.5 per cent per year while also decreasing total energy use by 1 per cent per year; underlining the importance of energy efficiency and conservation also.

"Uniquely, we looked at over 250,000 hours of weather data across the island of Ireland to determine the extremes of weather we will experience and predict how flexible and reliable our power system will need to be," said energy researcher Laura Mehigan, who co-authored the report with Dr Paul Deane.

Ultimately it will be renewable electricity that will be relied upon to fuel the back-up zero emissions generation of the future, Mr Lynott added. “With one year gone and nine to go to halve our electricity carbon emissions, now is the time to turn our attention to the achievement of co-ordinated policy, planning and investment to facilitate increasing levels of electricity generated renewably.”

The weather data underlines "the importance of being able to export and import energy through the interconnectors during high and low wind periods", the study says. But Ireland can have the same weather patterns as the UK and northern Europe.

One of those patterns – a “Kalte DunkelFlaute” – leads to a sustained period of cold, windless and cloudy conditions where electricity demand is high but weather-dependant generation is low.

‘Storage flexibility’

During a “Dunkelflaute” Ireland may have to rely on fewer imports from the UK and France due to having the same weather pattern, “and we will need all back-up generation to be available and all storage and system flexibility to be maximised”.

The UCC study concludes a 70 per cent ambition for renewables in 2030 is the correct one to align with key objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Moving to a zero emission power system post-2030 will require grid flexibility and different technological options, all of which come with implicit uncertainty, it concludes, “but share a requirement for early investment decisions, significant capital commitment and long lead times for construction”.

“Now is the time to turn our attention to achieving a post-2030 ‘zero e-mission future’ and ensure the correct policy signals stimulate appropriate market incentives and the right investments for a cost-effective transition,” Mr Lynott said.

“Key to those incentives and investments will be the achievement of a much faster rate of switching from high carbon fossil fuel, to electric heat pumps and vehicles and a much more flexible and agile electricity grid to absorb the projected level of weather-dependant generation.”

At times, the system will produce more renewable generation than can be used, stored or exported, MaREI notes. Yet, it must be sufficiently resilient to deal with periods of low wind generation, when there is very little power being supplied by renewables.

“Conventional generators and interconnectors meet the bulk of electricity demand during periods of low regional wind availability helped with smart loads, demand-side response units and batteries,” it says.

A greater effort in decarbonisation today will reduce the burden of effort post 2030, MaREI points out. It outlines different technologies that could further assist future decarbonisation.

While these options have implicit uncertainty, they share a requirement for significant capital commitment; long lead times for construction, decades-long operational lifetime and a need for investment decisions well in advance of 2030.

A dialogue on future pathways is required, it suggests, to ensure correct policy signals are provided to stakeholders that best position the sector to meet long-term decarbonisation obligations.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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