The proportion of renewable energy meeting our electricity needs continues to grow. Currently at about 30-40 per cent, on particularly windy days Ireland can see up to 60 per cent of our energy needs being met by renewables. But with a slow pace of deployment – and rapidly rising energy demand – increasing that figure to 80 per cent by 2030 (as per the national target) seems ambitious at best.
Paula Carroll, associate professor in the School of Business at University College Dublin, says that while we are doing well in terms of increasing the proportion of our electricity that comes from renewable sources, when it comes to heat and transport, we are lagging behind.
“We are on target for achieving renewable electricity,” says Carroll. “If you walk around you will see lots of PV [photovoltaic/solar] panels on ordinary homes because there are grants for this and it is cost-effective at the moment. The Government is also running auctions for operators to come in and put in new wind farms and solar farms. So this is on track.”
However, according to James Delahunt, partner in sustainable futures at KPMG, based on our current trajectory it is highly unlikely that the target of 80 per cent renewable electricity will be met.
“Ireland’s renewable electricity supply has grown from five to 39 per cent since 2005, leading to Ireland becoming a global leader in onshore wind generation. But Ireland’s electricity demand is growing quicker than we can build renewable generation infrastructure, which is making hitting the target more challenging,” says Delahunt.
“Coming close to the 80 per cent target will be a challenge unless significant resourcing, policy changes and community engagement are put in place.”
Previously Ireland’s renewable electricity supply was dominated by wind energy but Delahunt says the country is finally starting to diversify its renewable supply, with large-scale solar PV projects starting to come online in 2023.
“Solar will play a critical role in the decarbonisation of Ireland’s grid,” he says. “At certain times this summer, solar was providing as much as 10 per cent of Ireland’s demand.”
The slow pace of progress is not due to a lack of renewable projects, in Delahunt’s estimation. Rather, he places the blame on Ireland’s planning system and the resulting delays being experienced by renewable developers on their projects.
“There is no shortage of projects in the development pipeline to deliver on an 80 per cent renewable electricity target, with over 2,000MW of wind farms in the planning process,” he says. “But only one wind farm has successfully passed through the planning process in Ireland in the last year and on average decisions are taking up to 90 weeks.”
The electricity grid also requires significant investment to ensure Ireland’s renewable electricity opportunity is developed, Delahunt adds.
Three Ireland’s sustainability manager, Derval O’Brien, is more positive; in her view, “the glass is half full”.
“Yes, there is a lot to do. But there is a clear commitment at Government level and technological advancements at pace which can help us to address this challenge,” she says.
Welcoming the move towards diversification, O’Brien echoes Carroll by noting the “proliferation” of solar panels on the country’s roofs.
“The Irish Solar Energy Association reports 59,888 households with solar panels on their roof as of June 2023, a number that they say is increasing on a weekly basis,” she says.
Businesses are also embracing solar. Last year Three Ireland conducted a small pilot project where it installed PV solutions across nine radio sites in its network. The pilot was a success, O’Brien says, generating 6.69 MWh and ensuring that those test sites could partially power themselves and reduce demand from the grid.
“This year we have started to roll the solution out to an additional 110 sites,” adds O’Brien.
According to Wind Energy Ireland, in 2022 wind energy provided 34 per cent of the State’s electricity needs, helping consumers to avoid paying over €2 billion for natural gas. But offshore wind also offers immense potential and to date has been an untapped resource for Ireland, O’Brien notes.
“With the Climate Action Plan target of 5GW of installed offshore wind capacity by 2030, this is now a real focus area of our renewables strategy,” she says.
Earlier this year EirGrid successfully held the first offshore wind auction and awarded more than 3GW – enough to power more than 2.5 million Irish homes with clean electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than one million tonnes in 2030.
“The transition to an electricity grid powered predominantly by renewable energy is critical to achieving Ireland’s climate ambition and EirGrid is working with partners, stakeholders and engaging with society to deliver critical infrastructure which will support this transition,” says Liam Ryan, chief planning and innovation officer with EirGrid.
That said, Ryan acknowledges that the scale of the challenge is “without precedent”.
He notes that, along with planning these new projects, EirGrid is also optimising use of the current infrastructure. This includes using technologies such as dynamic power flow controllers and dynamic line rating to help manage network congestion and maximise existing network capacities.
“This approach also assists in mitigating challenges associated with building new transmission infrastructure, such as societal acceptance and prolonged outages of key existing infrastructure,” he says.
Ireland’s overall energy demand increased by almost 5 per cent in 2022, and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland says it is forecast to increase significantly in the coming years, “due to the expected expansion of many large energy users”. Data centres are at the heart of this; according to the SEAI, energy demand in the ICT subsector increased by almost 18 per cent in 2021.
Michael McCarthy is director of Cloud Infrastructure Ireland (CII), whose company members are Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft.
“Data centres are driving and will continue to drive the decarbonisation agenda,” he says. “According to the IDA, all large multinationals with data centres in Ireland have committed to being fully renewable powered.”
McCarthy says data centre operators are the “leading purchasers of renewable electricity on the planet”.
CII members are fully signed up to the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, a pledge by industry and trade associations of cloud infrastructure providers in the EU to achieve climate neutrality by 2030.
“All three members of CII are global companies with strong commitments to be net carbon zero well in advance of 2050. We are committed to sourcing our electricity from renewable sources and we have already committed to over 1000MWs of renewable projects and are seeking to participate in more corporate power purchase agreements,” says McCarthy.
“Future demand requirements can be met if Ireland accelerates plans to expand renewable energy, especially onshore and offshore wind, and solar PV.”