Ireland requires gas-fired power stations over the coming years to ensure stability of its electricity grid, according to chairwoman of the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) Marie Donnelly.
Putting in place these plants would be a short-term fix due to a technology gap on the all-island grid system, while scale-up of renewable energy would be undertaken at the same time, Ms Donnelly told the Oireachtas Climate Committee on Tuesday.
Asked if new gas infrastructure was incompatible with Ireland’s climate targets, she said, “the country is not in a position to walk away from gas today”, while it was unclear how long that would take.
She had no doubt, however, that Ireland would become a “living lab for the rest of the world” in showing how to transition to a scenario where more than 80 per cent of electricity came from renewables.
While other countries had similar targets, they were able to tap into large energy markets nearby to provide balance in their systems in the meantime. While Ireland was building interconnectors to such markets, it had insufficient balancing ability from such sources beyond the island.
“It’s a matter of stability of the grid” at a time of substantial population increase, economic growth and having to meet data centre requirements, Ms Donnelly said, while electrification of heat and transport in coming years would add to that demand.
In response to Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell, she said the issue of gas being sourced from volatile parts of the world was a matter for the European Union and, in her view, "is a geopolitical question more than a climate question".
She agreed with Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan that providing liquefied natural gas terminals did not increase energy security, adding it was "a very expensive belt and braces option", when the €1 billion required could be spent more effectively on other options.
Ms Donnelly said there was an urgent need for a national strategic plan on scaling up offshore wind energy, which looked in a holistic way at how it could be done, factoring in combinations of energy sources including green hydrogen fuel, wave and even solar.
Ireland had enormous potential in this sector backed by the availability of deep ports. But ports were not yet big enough to cater for very large turbines. The question had to be asked if Ireland had the ships and skills to sustain this offshore energy industry.
It also needed to decide what type of grid system – “ mesh or radial” – it would put in place in advance. This was being looked at in relation to the North Sea; “we should be part of that discussion”, she added.
The CCAC had stressed, she confirmed, the carbon budget programme for the coming decade “requires immediate and urgent action and investment in the first period [to 2025] to deliver accelerated reductions in the second carbon budget period, which are required to meet the 2030 target of a 51 per cent reduction relative to 2018”.
“The task of decarbonising Ireland is a major challenge, and it will affect all aspects of our lives,” Ms Donnelly underlined.
As it will have implications for households, communities and businesses, the council emphasised the need for public policy to ensure a just transition.
While a sustainable economy would bring overall benefits to individuals, society and households, through energy cost savings, enhanced health and comfort, and job opportunities, “negative impacts on vulnerable households and communities need to be mitigated by appropriate policies and supportive infrastructures”, she said.
The scale of change will also require a strong level of social acceptance and engagement. “All of us need to be convinced that climate action benefits us in order to rally support for changes on the ground. This requires leadership and the projection of a positive vision for a better society and natural environment alongside clarity on how climate action can strengthen social cohesion.”
In proposing the first carbon budget, the council had underlined the importance of opportunities for diversification of farm income streams and activities “as a part of transition and development of the broader green and circular economy, including in forestry, renewable energy and niche premium market development”.
The challenge was to ensure farms were profitable “for farmers, their family and their communities”, while being consistent with climate action priorities and allowing them to be innovative.
Ms Donnelly noted forest land is projected to switch from a “net removal to a net source” of emissions in the period to 2030, which she believed was due to “a policy failure”.
Targeted afforestation rates had not been achieved in recent decades. “This needs to be urgently reversed,” she said.
The council had highlighted the important role of farmers in managing carbon stocks such as wetlands, grasslands and forestry, and recommended they should be incentivised “to adopt measurable and verifiable practices that sequester carbon whilst considering the risk to soil carbon stocks and sinks in any land-use change”.