Ireland dependent on costly, polluting energy, assembly hears

No fundamental barrier to State becoming leader in climate action, says energy expert

Ireland is overly dependent on "other people's costly, polluting energy", and yet has some the best energy resources available on its doorstep in form of wind, solar and wave power, according to Dr Brian Motherway of the International Energy Agency.

Such local energy sources had the benefit of being clean and “our own”, Dr Motherway told the Citizen’s Assembly, which is considering how the State can become “a leader in tackling climate change”.

There were no fundamental barriers to Ireland becoming a leader in climate action, he said, as the technology was available to do so immediately, especially in energy efficiency and decarbonising buildings.

He believed, however, politicians were not being told emphatically by the public that they want them to do something about it.


Ireland should look to Denmark and Germany to see what it meant to be a leader on climate change, he added.

Denmark was going to be “fossil fuel-free” by 2050. Germany had a similar target but was also reducing its energy consumption by 50 per cent.

“For Ireland, it’s going to require a different level of ambition,” he said. He suggested the best approach was to identify areas where Ireland could be top of the heap, such as in ensuring all public buildings were super efficient in energy consumption and decarbonising emissions, and facilitating the use of electric vehicles.

But it was not a question of taking the one big action or decision, “but rather many small, separate actions across all Government departments and all sectors of society.”

He said wind energy has already reduced the carbon emissions from Ireland’s electricity sector by 20 per cent, which saved three million tonnes of carbon emissions going into the atmosphere, and hundreds of millions of euro on importing fossil fuels every year.

While there were obvious benefits to Ireland from onshore and offshore wind energy, it was a great pity wind had become so controversial. Those in the wind industry had to take some responsibility for this, as there was very little consultation with local communities where wind farms were being located, he said.

Energy expert Marie Donnelly, formerly of the European Commission, said "deep retrofitting" older houses for energy efficiency would be a good start for Ireland, as 88 per cent of the houses in Ireland were built before energy standards came in.

Mortgage models did not exist in Ireland to allow people to release the equity they may have in their home to fund energy upgrades such as heat pumps and insulation, she said. Such options were available in other countries and did not bring risk for banks.

Energy targets

On the evolution of the energy production and consumption in Europe, Ms Donnelly said: “Passive consumers are becoming active ‘prosumers’ - producers and consumers of renewable energy. Being able to produce your own energy individually or in citizen-led renewable energy co-operatives or community groups is part of this new shift with solar panels installed on homes, farms, schools or hospitals, those buildings are turned into small power stations generating clean energy for themselves and the local community.”

But no option existed in Ireland to feed excess energy into the electricity grid, she said. Ireland had the highest source of onshore and offshore wind in Europe, and yet was not on target to meet its EU renewable energy targets for 2020, she said.

Assembly Chair Ms Justice Laffoy said that on the basis of the robust discussions at the assembly about public and private responsibilities to take action, there was clearly a public appetite for climate-related actions in the energy area to be prioritised.

“We have all been struck by both the scale of the effects of climate change and the myriad of solutions, big and small, that exist,” she said.

Speaking after the assembly adjourned, Stop Climate Chaos Coalition spokesman Jerry Mac Evilly said it had heard "a series of inspiring presentations" on what climate change leadership looks like in the energy sector. "It really engaged with practical zero-carbon measures to sustainably generate electricity and heat our homes."

The takeaway message from speeches and discussion was “the real lack of political leadership in Ireland. Time and again the assembly asked why is Ireland a laggard and it emerged that the real impediment was Government inaction.”

Observer Niall Sargent of the Environment Pillar, which represents 26 environmental groups, pointed out “the feedback makes it clear – the people want genuine leadership from the Government on action on the threat that is right in front of our eyes”.

“It is an empowering process for them and we hope that it will be an empowering process for politicians too who will once again learn that the people are far ahead of them in their thinking and their readiness for action on climate change,” he said.

The assembly will meet again in November to vote on recommendations to Government.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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