Ireland’s greenhouse gas and renewable energy scorecards do not make for good reading. In the first of a series of features on sustainability, BARRY McCALL looks at the targets we have signed up to and what can be done to put the country back on track to a low carbon future.
Last November, Ireland formally deposited the “instrument of ratification” with the United Nations for the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is the most ambitious such agreement yet with 197 countries pledging to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to such an extent that world’s mean temperature will be prevented from rising by more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. Ideally, the rise will be contained to 1.5ºC.
The deal was original agreed in December 2015 at the Paris Climate Conference, known as COP 21 as it was the 21st such conference to be held. It came into force just ahead of COP 22 in Marrakesh in November 2016.
The agreement is made up of a collection of long-term goals emissions-reduction plans submitted by individual countries. Those plans go into effect in 2020. But that’s just the beginning. Ratifying countries are expected to ramp up their plans to ever more ambitious goals at five yearly intervals after that. This is because the baseline 2015 plans turned out to be woefully insufficient and would have led to a global mean temperature rise of up to 3.4 °C if allowed to remain in place.
For Ireland, this means a commitment as a nation to reducing carbon emissions from energy by 80 per cent – from 38 million tonnes of CO2 a year to less than 7 million tonnes. And that could just be the start given the requirement to ratchet up commitments post 2020.
For Ireland this means a commitment as a nation to reducing carbon emissions from energy by 80%
While there are many components to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with Irish agriculture being a significant contributor, energy clearly plays a central role.
Decarbonisation of energy will be critical to meeting the long term Paris goals and Ireland is already working towards some quite ambitious targets in relation to this. These were set in the wake of the EU 2009 Renewable Energy Directive which set a mandatory targets of 20 per cent of all energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Ireland’s target is 16 per cent of gross final consumption to come from renewables by 2020. This includes 10 per cent of all transport energy coming from renewable sources by the same date.
The 16 per cent target will be made up of contributions from renewable energy in electricity, renewable energy in transport, and renewable energy for heat and cooling. The target for renewables contribution to gross electricity consumption is 40 per cent. The target for renewables, including biofuels and the renewable portion of electricity, contribution to transport energy is 10 per cent. And the renewable contribution to heat target is 12 per cent.
Overlaying those are a further set of EU targets which compel Ireland to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
In a country blessed with some of the world’s best wind resources and a near ideal climate for the production of biofuel crops a casual observer would be forgiven for believing that these targets could be comfortably met. Sadly, that is not the case.
Rapid progress was made in meeting the renewable electricity target but this has since tapered off. During 2015, renewables contributed a quarter of all electricity used leading to the avoidance of 3 million tonnes of fossil-fuel related CO2 emissions, according to Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), Renewable Electricity in Ireland for 2015. Very encouragingly, the report showed that renewables contributed the second largest source of electricity that year behind gas and ahead of coal.
Over 80 per cent of the renewable electricity generated came from wind power accounting for three quarters of the avoided CO2 emissions. The remaining renewable electricity came from a range of technologies, including hydropower, biomass, waste and landfill gas. The contribution from biomass and renewable wastes includes biomass combined heat and power; co-firing in the Edenderry peat-fired power plant; and approximately half of the waste consumed in the Indaver waste-to-energy plant in Duleek, Co Meath.
The report also revealed that electricity from renewable energy sources more than quadrupled its share of gross electricity generation since 1990 going from 4.9 per cent in 1990 to 27.3 per cent in 2015. During this time the absolute amount of electricity from renewables increased eleven-fold from 697 GWh to GWh in 1990 to 7,857 GWh in 2015.Furthermore, the use of renewables in fuels used for electricity generation increased by 18.8 per cent in 2015. The largest increase was in wind, with an increase of 27.9 per cent, accounting for 12.6 per cent or approximately one eighth of fuels used.
If that rate of progress had continued Ireland would be well on its way not only to meeting its renewables and GHG targets but to joining Europe’s decarbonisation elite as well. Unfortunately, that has not been the case and the most recent report from the European Commission, released in February, revealed that this country is one of only four currently in the EU that is expected to miss its 2020 goals – the other three are Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the soon to depart United Kingdom.
Ireland will be forced to buy carbon credits to make up for its shortfall and these could amount to anything from €75 million to €150 million annually depending on whose estimate is used.
Even more worrying is the latest report from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which claims that instead of a 20 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 over 2005 levels the final outturn will be as low as 4 per cent. And the position is set to deteriorate post-2020 with the EPA forecasting an increase in emissions of 3.5 per cent by 2030.
That scenario could see Ireland having the bill for fines and carbon credits rising to billions.
The question is where do we go from here? The agriculture sector is making real efforts to reduce its overall carbon footprint with Teagasc working closely with the processing sector and individual farmers to achieve long term improvements in sustainability. This will take years if not decades to deliver results, however.
Our aim is to create a low carbon generation portfolio, based on a diverse mix of energy sources and technologies including wind, wave, waste to energy, solar, and biomass
The scope for action within the transport sector is limited. This country is more or less at the mercy of global trends. Ever improving fuel efficiency in the aviation sector will certainly increase as will a growing emphasis on electric vehicle (EV) development by the major automotive manufacturers but that latter area comes with a sting in the tail – there is little point in increasing EV penetration if the electrical energy used to charge them up comes from fossil fuel sources.
Ultimately, this means that the low hanging fruit when it comes to GHG reductions and renewable energy increases is electricity generation.
“In April 2017, the world breached a new CO2 threshold, with recordings of over 410 parts per million observed for the first time”, says ESB deputy chief executive Jerry O’Sullivan. “This compares with a figure of 280 when records began in 1958. We are committed to reducing carbon emissions from energy by 80 per cent by 2050. To achieve this, we need to radically rethink the fuel sources and technologies we use to heat our homes and businesses, run our transport system, and generate electricity. And low carbon electricity, combined with high-efficiency electric heating and transport technologies will play a huge role in solving Ireland’s energy challenges and meeting binding decarbonisation targets. Since its establishment in 1927, ESB has been creating a brighter future that enables progress, growth and possibility for the communities we serve. Today, a brighter future means a low carbon future, powered by electricity.”
He believes the targets will only be achieved through a multi-stranded approach. “There are many potential routes to a low carbon future”, he says. “Our task is to choose the best one, not just in terms of maintaining affordability and security of supply, but also in terms of securing critical support and acceptance from local communities.”
ESB has four strategic work streams spanning all its business units that are designed to find that optimal solution. The first of these involves investment in low carbon and renewable generation, and the transition away from fossil fuels.
“Electricity generation accounts for 19 per cent of Ireland’s overall emissions and our aim is to create a low carbon generation portfolio, based on a diverse mix of energy sources and technologies including wind, wave, waste to energy, solar, and biomass, that can collectively achieve our triple objectives of energy affordability, energy security and sustainability”, says O’Sullivan.
“Our new partnership with Bord na Mona, for instance, launched in April 2017, reinforces our confidence in the potential of solar to become a commercially viable proposition in the future, and to play an important role in helping Ireland meet its carbon reduction targets beyond 2020.”
The second work stream is focused on developing a smarter, more resilient network to support increased levels of distributed and intermittent energy resources, including solar, but also other small scale-generation, battery storage and electric vehicles.
“The third work stream recognises the role of customers in developing a low carbon electricity system”, he continues. “With input from Electric Ireland’s Smarter Living Panel, we are creating new tools and solutions that will give our customers more control over their energy use, and help them to live more convenient, comfortable and energy efficient lives.
For example, in April we launched a new solar solution for residential customers that will allow them to generate their own electricity without incurring upfront capital costs.”
Decarbonising Ireland’s electricity system in the context of today’s energy consumption patterns has the potential to directly tackle just 19 per cent of Ireland’s total carbon emissions. “However, by transitioning transport and heating away from oil and gas towards highly efficient electric technologies, such as heat pumps and electric cars, we can potentially increase the impact up to 50 per cent. Therefore, our fourth pillar comprises a series of initiatives to promote the electrification of heating and transport – the most obvious example being the nationwide public charging network for EVs. A common feature across all four pillars is our commitment to collaboration as a way of advancing innovation and sharing resources to accelerate the pace of change.”
One of the key issues touched on here is community involvement. While all independently conducted surveys and research indicate overwhelming public support for wind energy and other renewable solutions the reality on the ground among receiving communities tends to be somewhat different.
“On the renewables side Ireland has a 40 per cent target for 2020”, says Peter Baillie, managing director of Energia Renewables. “We’re going to struggle to reach that. But that’s not down to not having a good pipeline of projects. There are a lot of issues in planning system. There is a legal mire that has engulfed a lot of projects and this makes achieving the targets very, very difficult.”
He says that, in the short term at least, wind is the lowest cost form which could help Ireland reach the 40 per cent target. “We are going to get into mid-30s”, he says. “But what we find is that we get projects through the planning process and then get mired in legal appeals and judicial reviews.”
Baillie believes that the catalyst for much of the public opposition was the large scale midlands schemes which were earmarked for power exports to the UK. “Those schemes did seem to catalyse different groups to coordinate and create joined up opposition to wind projects”, he says. “In many ways that doesn’t reflect public opinion. If you look at the polls, more than 80 per cent of people are in favour of wind farms. The opposition to wind is not reflective of the public mood.”
The situation is not helped by the fact that opponents of wind projects within communities are able to get support from people living outside the local area. “Energia has developed 10 wind farms over the last seven years with very little opposition to them”, he points out. “We had one in Northern Ireland with a bit of opposition. Some windfarms have had no opposition at all. But what we are finding now is that the opposition is linking up. In some cases projects are experiencing legal opposition from people who live nowhere near the developments.”
He cites the example of a legal challenge to a Donegal windfarm planning permission from an individual living at a considerable distance from it. The grounds also gave cause for concern. “The challenge was to the way the decision had been documented”, he says.
“There is only a relatively small number of people taking legal challenges”, Baillie adds. “The government view is that there should be more community involvement. That is welcome and we always look for early stage engagement with communities. But what wind energy developers are increasingly finding is that there is a lot of local political opposition. Politicians are negatively disposed to windfarms and some of them are looking for a complete ban on windfarms in their constituency areas. This is very regrettable.
“There needs to be a more positive view of the whole issue at the political level”, he continues. “We need to look at why we are building windfarms in first place. It is because they are sustainable, clean, and reduce fossil fuel imports. Onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of energy you can get. There is too much nimbyism at political level – not in any political backyard.”
ESB is also committed to community involvement in relation to wind projects. “Onshore wind continues to be one of the most cost effective solutions in terms of new electricity generation and, in turn, ESB continues to seek new opportunities to develop new onshore wind projects alongside other technology solutions”, says Jerry O’Sullivan. “Today, we’ve amassed an onshore wind asset portfolio which has the capacity to supply nearly 450 MW of green energy to the homes, farms, hospitals, schools, and businesses throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom.”
Onshore wind continues to be one of the most cost effective solutions in terms of new electricity generation
Wind generation has a key role to play in a decarbonised energy system, alongside other forms of renewable and low carbon generation sources, he adds. “At ESB, we want our wind farm investments to deliver long term social, economic and environmental benefits for everyone.
We have wind farm community funds in place for all 17 of our wind farms across Ireland and the United Kingdom and have invested €5 million over the last five years in these communities, supported almost 450 projects in total. This is just one part of our commitment to ensuring clear and lasting benefits to communities living in the vicinity of our wind farm sites. We also engage in ongoing consultation and engagement with the community.”
Energy reduction and efficiency will also have a role to play in meeting the greenhouse gas emissions target according to Bord Gais Energy head of retail Mark Prentice. “We are energy suppliers and we are doing a lot to help our customers achieve reductions in energy consumption”, he says.
He says that businesses have to achieve reductions for a variety of reasons including costs. “A lot of annual reports now have to contain a section dealing with the company’s carbon footprint.
The companies have to be able to tell their customers and shareholders how much energy they are saving and by how much they have reduced their carbon footprint year on year. We get a lot of multinationals approaching us looking to reduce their carbon footprint and their energy usage.”
This is by no means restricted to large companies. “Businesses of all sizes right down to small retailers realise that they have to achieve reductions and we need to make it easy for them”, Prentice adds. “We can’t just go in with a whole raft of solutions. We start with easy simple ways of energy reduction with little or no cost and then look later at more complex stuff. It’s about taking the first step on the journey.”
Peter Baillie points to the residential component. “There is a challenge in terms of the housing stock”, he says. “It’s not designed for it. There is a lot of work to be done on retrofitting the existing housing stock. But there is a lot of innovation going on as well. New storage solutions, rooftop solar, and technologies like heat pumps will contribute a lot. However, it must be recognised that individual households will only invest if there is a short term payback.”
ESB is also active in this area and the company has established a specific business unit, Smart Energy Services, to help large energy users to reduce their energy costs through energy management and efficiency projects. “This unit offers clients managed energy services using data analytics capabilities, demand response management platforms, leveraging cutting-edge technology and finance to reduce energy consumption and costs for industrial and commercial customers”, says Jerry O’Sullivan.
Since its establishment last year the unit has partnered with 50 Irish and UK companies to help deliver energy savings of more than €20 million. These companies include Tesco Ireland, Dublin Airport Authority, and the CHQ building in Dublin’s Docklands. The division aims to achieve €50 million in savings with its partner companies by 2018. In addition, ESB Smart Energy Services announced a fund of €10 million to help companies implement energy projects earlier this year.
While renewable sources will be of immense importance their role will be limited without the development of a smart grid and the deployment of other technologies. “The smart grid is the glue that will make the future low carbon electricity system possible”, O’Sullivan explains. “In the last decade and a half, ESB Networks has invested over €6 billion in the network to support the integration of intermittent renewable generation and other distributed energy resources into the system.
Looking ahead, the smart grid will play an even greater role by allowing customers to access information about their energy use, and therefore to manage this more efficiently. In essence, it will allow all parts of the energy system to communicate with each other and therefore work together in a much more streamlined and integrated way, while delivering cost savings and convenience to customers.
“Smart metering is key to empowering customers to minimise their electricity costs and participate in the electricity market”, he adds. “Under the mandate of the Commission for Energy Regulation, ESB Networks will install the smart metering infrastructure in Ireland and play a key role in providing the technology, telecommunications and management required.”
We are not short of solutions or resources but will that be enough to achieve the targets? The industry sentiment is one of cautious hope with Energia’s Peter Baillie perhaps expressing it best. “Politicians need to look at a roadmap to reach the 2020 and 2030 targets”, he says. “We need to have a plan that will get us there. The Clean Air consultation is out at the moment and this underlines the importance of promoting renewables. There is a need for a political consensus on how to do that. The prospect of not reaching the targets is quite a serious concern for Ireland.”
But the target can be achieved: “Yes, if there is the political will to do it.” D