The Government decision to support further fossil gas generation of electricity over the next decade "is hugely concerning" because of associated carbon emissions, according to the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
“Any story about new fossil gas infrastructure must come back to the fact that locking-in more fossil gas runs counter to our Paris Agreement objectives to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees,” said the organisation’s head of policy Jerry MacEvilly.
The Government must be clear on how it intends to minimise use of gas plants, and on how they will ensure transparency when it comes to the polluting emissions associated with these plants, he said.
The Cabinet approved a new policy statement on Tuesday to “ensure security of electricity to supply 2.4 million homes and businesses”, which allows for use of gas-fired plants that will supplement and act as back-up for wind and solar energy.
They emit less greenhouse gases than existing coal and other fossil fuel plants – one unit of electricity generated from natural gas produces about 40 per cent less CO2 than coal for the same given efficiency (33 per cent).
However, the health and economic risks associated with continued gas expansion cannot be ignored, Mr MacEvilly said, while continued fossil gas expansion and increasing fossil gas reliance risked undermining Ireland’s climate objectives.
The Government statement supports development of 2,000 megawatts of flexible gas-fired generation capacity. It also sets out that connections of large energy users to the national grid “must take account of the potential impact on security of electricity supply and the need to decarbonise the grid”.
On top of providing additional electricity transmission and distribution grid infrastructure, backed by greater use of electricity interconnectors and electricity storage, the statement says “additional natural gas transmission and distribution grid infrastructure should be developed”.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith strongly criticised the plans to build up to seven new gas-fired power stations. “This plan, shockingly advanced by a Green Party Minister, raises serious questions both for Ireland’s commitments to lowering CO2 emissions and also around how this will be funded.
“The Government’s climate action plan has already “back-loaded” most of the CO2 emission reductions we need to make by 2030 – and this announcement makes those reductions even harder by locking us into fossil fuel use for decades to come even as they promise zero emissions by 2050,” she added.
The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council had raised concerns there was no estimate of the budgetary cost of implementing the climate action plan, she noted, "and yet the Government's plan would see Ireland continue with fossil fuel use for another 25-30 years despite research from the EPA warning about the dangers of fossil fuel lock-in and the risk of stranded assets if we are to meet our climate targets".
EPA research in 2019 had found “84 per cent of a leading Irish utility’s existing fossil fuel-based power generation assets may be incompatible with a 1.5-degree budget”, Ms Smith said – the Government has supported the key Paris climate agreement target of containing global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees.
“The fact that much existing fossil fuel infrastructure will have to be phased out and decommissioned before its planned end of life begs the question of why we are planning to build additional fossil fuel infrastructure and how this construction will be financed,” Ms Smith pointed out.
The Government must clarify how their plans will impact on Ireland reaching its climate targets, and also how they plan on funding construction of these plants, she said.
“If we are serious about tackling climate change the Government must rapidly change course, rather than just continuing with business as usual with some minor tweaks. In addition to massive increases in renewable energy, we need real measures to reduce our over all energy consumption such as curbs on energy intensive industries like data centres and a massive increase in low carbon, reliable and free public transport to provide a real alternative to personal car use”
Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said secure electricity supplies were vital for the economy as the share of renewable electricity is increased to up to 80 per cent by 2030.
“They are also vital to attract new investment into Ireland and for people and businesses to have complete confidence when purchasing electric vehicles and installing heat pumps. This new gas-fired capacity will be flexible enough to balance our national grid as we expand solar energy and onshore and offshore wind, and will be more efficient than our older oil and coal-fired power stations,” he added.
Moneypoint coal-fired generation station will remain available to generate electricity beyond a previous target closure date of 2025, “but only until it is replaced by new generation capacity, which is expected to be within one or two years”.
"It will only operate if and when needed, with renewable energy and efficient gas-fired power stations always being supplied to the market first. This approach will minimise the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring continued security of electricity supply," Mr Ryan said.