Securing Ireland’s energy supply over the next 50 years

We are more vulnerable than most EU states because of our dependence on imports and on fossil fuels

 

Ireland imports nine tenths of its energy needs – one of the highest rates in Europe – and therefore both price and security of supply of oil and gas matter greatly. Last year few thought that cheaper US shale oil and gas production would have such a dramatic impact on energy prices. But at a time of weak global energy demand, the oil price fell by more than half. However, the immediate benefits from cheaper oil – lower overall prices and the greater spending power for consumers – while welcome, are in Ireland’s case clouded somewhat by larger medium-term worries about security of supply.

Dr Rory Monaghan, director of energy systems at NUI Galway, noted in the Irish Times series on Ireland’s Energy, that future supply has now become the energy sector’s biggest concern. As Britain’s North Sea oil and gas reserves decline, and run out in the years ahead, Ireland will become reliant on energy imports from further afield, and from less stable regions – such as Russia and the Middle East. And while recent conflicts in oil-producing countries have so far not adversely affected supply, that could change.

Ireland is making progress towards the goal of greater energy independence and efficiency. In 2013, energy imports cost €6.7 billion. Import substitution, via increased use of renewable energy alternatives, would save money, help to ensure security of supply and reduce Ireland’s dependence on foreign energy suppliers. Since the last White Paper on energy was published eight years ago, renewable energy has made a bigger contribution to supply, and an all-island energy market with Northern Ireland has been established. EU rules now require that Ireland generates 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Currently, Ireland is half way towards achieving that goal, mainly thanks to the contribution of wind energy, which regularly supplies half the country’s wintertime electricity demand. The goal is to near double national wind capacity.

The greater longer term challenge is to meet climate change targets and become a “low-carbon economy” by 2050. The Oireachtas is discussing legislation to achieve a zero-carbon society by that date. Former energy minister, Eamon Ryan, has described the scale of that formidable challenge: “It requires a new industrial revolution that takes fossil fuels out over the next 35 years.”

One benign effect of the recession was a large (22 per cent) cut in carbon dioxide emissions, but the return to strong economic growth, has reversed some of the progress made, and could mean Ireland may fail to meet its emission targets. Minister for Energy Alex White will publish a White Paper on energy later this year, which must bring some clarity, by setting out in considerable detail what will be required to achieve the low-emission targets already set.