‘We are only firing up the kilns when necessary’: Pottery business faces tough choices as energy costs soar

Shanagarry Potters in Co Cork running just a few of its 20 kilns to reduce electricity costs as bills rise, limiting options for customers

Rising energy prices have forced an east Co Cork pottery business to run just two or three of its 20 kilns to reduce running costs in the face of soaring electricity bills.

Shanagarry Potters said its electricity bill for August was double what it paid last November when production was running at full capacity.

The impact of the surge on the business, which produces the well-known Stephen Pearce Pottery range, has meant director Cristin O’Reilly is having to looking for alternatives for the winter such as training or running pottery classes to keep her 11 staff fully employed and busy.

“We have had to cut back because electricity has just gone up and up,” she said. “We are only firing up the kilns when necessary and that leaves me with a production team with nothing to do if they are not producing. If they produce, it has to go to a kiln.”


We have literally sat down and gone through what could we do, how can we do it better? The vital organs that need to be up and running are the shop and our production

Ms O’Reilly described the situation that she and her staff find themselves in as “very strange”. It is a pottery business that cannot afford to run the kilns to produce pottery required to sustain the business.

Reducing staff hours would be a difficult choice because if staff are put on shorter working weeks, she believes it will be hard for them to return full time work when energy prices fall. Retaining staff hours and skills in such a business is critical, says Ms O’Reilly, especially the head potter Ron Barrett, whom she describes as their “main breadwinner”.

For this reason, the company is considering running pottery classes to cover the hours when kilns are not on.

“If I do take someone off a five-day week and put them on a three-day week, I won’t get them back on a five-day week because it won’t be economically sound for them,” she said. “We had this issue over the last 10 or 11 years. If someone ends up working less hours, they will get their supplement from the dole and it won’t be worth their while to come back five days.”

Reduced production means Shanagarry is concentrating on making its best-sellers as quickly and as efficiently as possible to maximise the use of the kilns. This results in a smaller range of products being available for customers to buy.

Kilns run mostly at night to save on electricity but this means staff do not get the benefit of warm air being piped back into the pottery wheel room as they work during the day, which would save on the use of electric heaters.

“We have literally sat down and gone through what could we do, how can we do it better? The vital organs that need to be up and running are the shop and our production,” Ms O’Reilly said.

She likened the challenges facing the business to those that arose that the time of the 2008 economic crash, but said the main difference now is that nobody knows how high electricity prices might go.

“In 2008, everything went. You were at rock bottom and heading back up,” she said. “This is like a snowball — we don’t know what size it is going to be.”

Ms O’Reilly said the business has control over most things and can manage, but not electricity.

“The only things we can’t control are the weather and the price of electricity. Everything else almost we are good at, so we just have to see,” she said. “We will have to adjust and make it through to next summer.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent