Ireland’s Energy: What’s the right policy for a recovering economy?

Carbon dioxide emissions fell in the recession but are now rising again. Without dramatic policy changes, Ireland won’t achieve its targets

Ireland needs to diversify its fuel sources and not depend on coal-fired power stations such as Moneypoint. Photograph: Neil Warner for ESB

Ireland needs to diversify its fuel sources and not depend on coal-fired power stations such as Moneypoint. Photograph: Neil Warner for ESB

 

It is eight years since the publication of the last White Paper on Energy. Since then, there has been a major acceleration of renewable energy. Capacity has been increased and an all-island energy market with Northern Ireland has been created. Big strides have also been made on energy efficiency, from better building regulations and energy-efficient incentives for homes to a dramatic lowering in emissions from cars.

Yet some of the big problems that confronted the government then have budged little since, including an 89 per cent dependence on imported fuel, lack of diversity in fuel sources and challenging climate change targets such as the need to become a “low-carbon economy” by 2050.

The recession led to a 22 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, but the recovering economy has led to emissions increase in transport, industry and domestic sectors. Unless this changes dramatically, Ireland will fail to achieve its emissions targets.

Renewable power

Alex White

White has also said the Finance Bill will include new forms of incentives for prospecting for oil and gas off Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Pointing out that the number of applications for licences had increased, he is nonetheless cautious about any substantial find of oil or gas in the future.

Dr Rory Monaghan, director of energy systems engineering at NUI Galway, says three approaches are necessary for future energy policy. The first is to diversify existing supplies and energy sources. The second is to look for new sources in Ireland. The third is to look for renewables and replacements, such as wind, ocean power and enhanced networks.

Monaghan says Ireland is hugely dependent on its gas pipeline to Scotland. “The UK reserves are running out. If something goes wrong, we have zero backup.”

He says the Corrib field (which will supply 60 per cent of gas needs for four years) will give a temporary solution. He says the State should look at liquefied natural gas and massive tankers full of liquid gas stored in the Shannon estuary.

Interconnectors

Eamon Ryan

Ryan also sees this as part of the solution to the big problem with wind power: its variable nature. If wind turbines were generating more power than Ireland needed, they could be fed into the wider European grid.

For another former energy minister, Pat Rabbitte, that kind of interconnection would allow big wind farms in the midlands to export power to Britain and beyond – a possibility he worked on while minister.

Ryan would like to see the electrification of heat and transport, both very reliant on fossil fuels. He quotes influential American environmental consultant Jeremy Rifkin who has said we will “have a digital revolution that will drive an energy revolution that will drive a social revolution”.

A major plank of that thinking is a smart meter programme, which would allow domestic users to control when and how they use electricity, and even allow them to become mini generators (through solar and wind). A policy paper published by Rabbitte last year said pilot studies had shown smart meters could reduce peak electricity demand by 8.8 per cent.

While the uptake of electric cars has been paltry (range anxiety and car prices are the two major impediments), White and others are optimistic that it will improve. However, nobody holds out any hope that the target of them making up 20 per cent of the car fleet by 2020 is realistic.

White also says he will focus a lot of effort on improving the incentives for energy efficiency in homes. The aim of retrofitting one million homes by 2020 does not look achievable.

So what are the potential new sources of energy in Ireland? Monaghan says the Government should be pushing renewable power for energy security as much as climate change. Wind and ocean energy are very much at the research stage and have not been cracked yet. “They are high risk, high reward,” says Monaghan.

Ryan agrees: “If it does take off, then we, the Scots and the Portuguese will be among the richest countries on the planet.”

Then there’s shale gas, which is derived using the controversial “fracking” process, and which has transformed the energy market in North America and indeed globally.

Feasibility

Environmental Protection Agency

While accepting it is unlikely to be successful here, he nonetheless says: “There is a lot of fear about fracking. Some of it is justified. But if there is correct oversight there is no reason for it be more dangerous than any other industrial process.”

Energy leaders: Other countries’ policies

Germany An industrial giant, Germany has transformed its approach to energy in recent years. It is phasing out nuclear power – with new impetus since the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan – and is due to complete this process by 2020. It has become a leading advocate of renewable energy. Using wind, biogas and solar power, 30 per cent of Germany’s electricity now comes from renewable sources. Offshore wind has also become a big focus.

Denmark A pioneer in wind energy, Denmark is on target to derive 70 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. It will also be coal-free by that year. Already a third of the country’s energy needs come from renewable sources. Sweden Sweden has been one of the leading countries for district heating arrangements. Cities with populations from a few hundred up to 100,000 have bio-energy district heat plants, which burn wood waste such as sawdust and pellets, as well as other forms of waste. Each home in the district is retrofitted to receive heat and hot water from those plants without the need for other systems. However, electricity consumption is still high, and the country relies heavily on nuclear power.

New Zealand The leading southern hemisphere country in the race to become carbon-neutral by mid-century, 38 per cent of New Zealand’s energy comes from renewable energy sources. Hydropower and geothermal sources have accounted for most of that, but the addition of an ambitious wind energy programme should push those figures even higher.

Norway Norway’s oil exports have helped to make it one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Its mountains and fjords have also given it another energy source, hydro power, which provides nearly all of the country’s electricity. The rest is from thermal power and wind.

The country has also been a pioneer in researching tidal power. It was also the first country in the world to explore seriously the possibilities of carbon capture and storage (from its oil fields); this is seen as a vital component in the solution to tackle climate change (by essentially neutralising emissions).

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.