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Growing momentum countrywide to embrace energy efficiency

‘Working together means a shared workload, better value for money and bigger impact’

Inisheer, part of the Aran Islands which are  one of the best and longest-running examples of a sustainable energy community in Ireland. File photograph: Getty

Inisheer, part of the Aran Islands which are one of the best and longest-running examples of a sustainable energy community in Ireland. File photograph: Getty

 

There is no doubt that the national retrofit renovation wave required for the Government to reach its target of retrofitting 500,000 homes (one-third of all residential accommodation) by 2030 hasn’t yet come. Reaching the target to install 400,000 heat pumps in existing buildings by 2030 is also hard to imagine.

Yet, there is a growing momentum in communities across Ireland to embrace energy efficiency and renewable energy in their homes and community buildings alongside developing sustainable transport initiatives and community-based energy generation projects. The Covid-19 pandemic might have stalled progress but it also fuelled greater interest in low carbon alternatives to fossil fuels in our buildings and transport sector.

Ruth Buggie, the programme manager of the Sustainable Energy Communities programme at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) says that there are about 600 communities signed up to the programme now with a target to reach 1,500 communities by 2030. The funds available through the programme have increased substantially from €1.8 million in 2012 to €57 million in 2021.

Essentially, the SEAI Sustainable Energy Communities programme team helps communities on their journey to a low carbon future. This includes a network of mentors who will help groups make energy master plans, apply for SEAI funding (a tricky process in itself), select suitable projects and keep the community informed on progress.

“Working together as a community means a shared workload, better value for money and a bigger impact,” says Buggie.

Retrofitting private houses and community buildings is the cheapest and most straightforward way for a community to become more sustainable. When the insulation is improved and more energy efficient lighting and heating systems are put in place, the reduction of energy used results in cheaper heating and electricity bills and more comfortable buildings.

The Aran Islands is one of the best and longest-running examples of a sustainable energy community in Ireland. The Aran Islands Energy Co-operative was set up in 2012 and since then, about 50 per cent of homes on the three Aran Islands have had energy efficiency measures carried out in their homes.

“We have had everything from attic insulation right up to a complete retrofit with heat pumps and photovoltaic [PV] panels generating electricity which is then stored in batteries,” explains Dara Molloy from the Aran Islands Energy Co-operative . Village halls, schools and a home for older people have also been retrofitted.

“The majority of people on the three islands have a positive attitude and are proud of what we are doing,” says Molloy. In September 2021, the Aran Islands Energy Co-operative won an international award for being the best example in Europe of a mid-sized island involving the community in its sustainability journey.

The next big step is for the Aran Islands community is to develop wind energy for the islands and for export to the mainland. “The major consumption of fossil fuels is the ferries which come from Rosaveal and Doolin. We would like to see them converted to green hydrogen,” says Molloy. He suggests that surplus wind generated on the island could be compressed for green hydrogen to fuel the ferries to and from the islands.

Catalyst of Tidy Towns

There are many other communities throughout Ireland who have started on their sustainability journey. For example, the residents of Birdhill in Co Tipperary have carried out energy upgrades on homes and community buildings through a group initiative. In this case, it was the Tidy Town group which managed the project. And the addition of a category for community and environmental activities in the annual Tidy Towns competition has spawned a growth of interest in sustainability among this active community voluntary movement.

In Dublin, the Ringsend Irishtown Sustainable Energy Community (RISEC) has used the Fair Play Cafe as a hub for sustainability in the community. Joe Donnelly, chairman of RISEC and chief executive of the Fair Play Cafe installed energy efficiency LED lighting, advanced heating controls, a new insulated door and Solar PV panels all of which has saved 21 per cent on energy bills for the building which also includes a family resource centre.

“By working as a group, the hassle factor can be taken out – particularly for more vulnerable people – some of whom will be able to avail of SEAI grants for the Warmer Homes Schemes,” explains Buggy. Retrofitting is carried out for free in the Warmer Homes Scheme while grants of 30 per cent of costs are available through the Sustainable Energy Communities Programme.

The new decarbonisation zones within each local authority in Ireland – part of the Government’s Climate Action Plan – will be another step towards sustainability in communities across Ireland. These decarbonisation zones are expected to showcase low carbon measures across all areas, develop low carbon towns and act as a model for the entire local authority area to reach the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7 per cent each year from 2021 to 2030. Watch this space.