Cut our demand for energy, rather than increasing supply through wind

Opinion: Policy swaps one energy dependency for another

As the UN’s premier scientific panel warned again recently about the risks of climate change, we need to find solutions that benefit the consumer and business – as well as the environment – in order to make real progress on this issue.

A recent protest march to Leinster House against proposed pylon and wind farm projects should encourage us to examine alternatives, including a win-win sustainable solution for climate change and energy security.

To some, wind energy is seen as a panacea for reducing emissions, but it should be noted that all of the planned wind farms and pylons will save only 2.5 million of the 57 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions Ireland emits annually.


'Green image'
Even for the most committed renewable energy enthusiast, this 4 per cent gain is tiny and also a very hard sell given the potentially devastating impact on the landscape, tourism and Ireland's "green image" – not to mention a likely increase in electricity prices.

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The pain to achieve this gain will bring the “coping classes” to breaking point as well as hindering businesses vulnerable to rising energy costs and already struggling under a barrage of new charges when they need to maintain competitiveness.

There is a viable alternative that would quite simply involve reducing our demand for energy, particularly by retrofitting the existing building stock with insulation and low-energy appliances. Indeed, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has explicitly endorsed this approach. Buildings consume 40 per cent of energy, so if this was reduced by 75 per cent, it could shave €2 billion off our annual €6.5 billion energy bill and cut emissions by 11 million tonnes per year – equivalent to more than four times the savings from wind.

By coincidence, Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte launched a public consultation last November seeking ideas on how to reduce the 11.5 million tonnes of emissions from the electricity sector. In effect, these could be almost entirely offset by retrofitting. That’s how significant retrofitting buildings would be, in terms of reducing energy demand. It would also benefit society by creating thousands of jobs as well as alleviating fuel poverty among vulnerable people, often living in poorly-insulated homes. Once embarked upon, such a programme would generate real momentum. If we were to start by reducing our demand in buildings by 75 per cent, it should be possible to look at making buildings largely self sufficient as technologies mature in this sector. This is true sustainability.

Market instability

Pursuing such a path would insulate us from external energy shocks – such as an interruption in gas supplies from Siberia – and put us in the best position to avail of whatever forms of energy emerge in the future.

We wouldn’t need to build more turbines. Ireland already has 20 per cent “wind penetration” (ie, share of electricity production) and, as we reduce the demand for electricity, this would increase unaided to the 42 per cent maximum technically possible. Sadly, the Government’s current energy policy only seems to swap one type of energy dependency for another. As we approach 2016 it is always worth remembering that, no matter how benign the power, independence is always the better option.

David Hughes is an award-winning architect in the low-energy and environmental sector and a director of the Passive House Association of Ireland.