Public support essential in achieving climate goals, conference told

Eirgrid chief says group will engage with communities on renewable plans

The biggest challenge facing Ireland as it seeks to halve its carbon emissions, strengthen its power grid and decarbonise electricity generation is securing public support for critical infrastructure, according to Eirgrid Group chief executive Mark Foley.

This year was seminal in trying to win hearts and minds in scaling up climate ambition, he told the annual conference of Wind Energy Ireland on Tuesday.

This meant convincing people on the merits of the climate action plan; on what was required and on the need for urgency, he said. This was why the grid provider was pursuing an unprecedented engagement with communities on its plans for the next decade. “It’s critical that the nation does not say ‘no’,” he added.

Eirgrid was working with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) and the Government in attempting to reconcile big increases in demand for power and the need for more renewables feeding into the system.

Texas was "a frightening example of what can go wrong", he underlined, while power supplies in Ireland over the recent winter were extremely tight due to a confluence of circumstances including weather conditions. "Nothing would do more damage to our collective ambition than for the lights to go out," he admitted.

The 2019 climate action plan introduced by Richard Burton was notable for its forensics on what needed to be done, Mr Foley said. The latest version being rolled out by Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan needed to be clearer on the critical pathways, with specifics on "what needs to be done, when", he added.

CRU commissioner Jim Gannon said people needed to appreciate the need for large infrastructure placed somewhere as Ireland over time gets off carbon.

‘Life improvements’

It was essential, he believed, that consumers were brought to the centre of the transition to “experience the value and quality of life improvements” that would arise from this. This entailed going beyond talk of CO2 and renewable energy targets, so people become activated in wanting to pursue this course.

Dr Paul Deane of MaREI energy institute in University College Cork echoed the call to get the public on board by "normalising" conversations about climate action. This needed to be pursued by those embarking on decarbonisation, especially in the context of facing a world that is 3 to 4 degrees warmer if net-zero carbon emissions was not achieved.

He outlined the “crazy” scenario of Ireland having vast renewable energy resources and yet importing so much fossil fuel, while so many people were dying every year as a result of air pollution arising from such energy sources.

Achieving net-zero by 2050 would be hard, so “we must mind families and people who are negatively impacted”, Dr Deane added.

Ireland was attempting to halve its emissions by 2030, which “has never been achieved before...We must invest across the energy system, and we must act early. We must think with a net-zero mindset”.