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SEAI Energy Show: An Overview of Energy in Ireland

Posted by Friends of the Earth on May 10, 2017 at 11:23 AM

SEAI Energy Show: An Overview of Energy in Ireland

David West, Dublin FoE, April 2017

posted by Guest Blogger

According to the most recent SEAI energy data report (2015), in line with the recovery from the aftermath of the economic crash, 2015 saw the first year of an increase in energy use in Ireland since 2009. Given this fact, the SEAI Energy Show offered the chance to see where Ireland currently stands on our energy consumption, greenhouse emissions and the mitigation of this impact through renewable energy project roll-outs and innovationsin green technologies.

Not being so deeply affected by the economic crash of 2008, many other countries could continue with investing in and developing the initial steps, largely begun in the early 2000s, to migrate to renewable energies and deliver on their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, despite our own commitment to emissions reduction, Ireland, with the recent return of the good times for more people, has seen a return to rising levels of consumption, our energy use and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions. Having decreased steadily over the previous decade and even when factoring in a growing population, energy consumption rose by 4.9% and our greenhouse emissions by 5.8% in 2015 alone, while the latter went down in most other EU countries.

So, with this insight, is it worth asking; has the myopic, slavering, pot-bellied Celtic Tiger revived and awoke to feast on all before it? Or is that just me being over-dramatic? At this juncture, in our age of convenience, it might be wise to take a look at ourselves, all of us, and not just idly blame commercial industry and big business (who produce what we buy); to reflect on and assess our own individual habits, choices and their effects; as well as those of industry and big business. If not, we can only hope that the natural sciences can be as elastic and rebound as quickly from the noxious by-products of the booms and busts of their primogenitor and pseudo-science of economics: whose equations and violent swings cause general imbalance; and are usually to the detriment of those animals who have not studied it. Oops! There I go again.

However, despite this worrying re-emergent trend and the fact that the revenue stream for Ireland’s initial foray into the conversion from grey to green energy [among many other good and necessary causes] having been waylaid by off-loading investment bankers at the crap tables of casino economics and then scavenged by vulture funds, the news is not all bad. The Irish green economy sector projects, innovations and potential presented at the SEAI Energy Show would indicate the promise of a shared will and opportunity to “Make This Country Green Again!”

According to the SEAI’s latest energy data report; by 2015, with a commitment to have 16% “renewables in [all] final energy use” by 2020, this figure then stood at 9.1%. At a little over the halfway point this meant that 3.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and 426 million euro of fossil fuel imports had been avoided. In addition, 27% of all electricity consumption in that year was generated by renewable energies across; wind, hydro, landfill gas and bio-energy. However, given the loss of impetus due to our economic bump in the road it is debatable, if not doubtful, that we will manage to meet the aforesaid 16% by 2020, and this is the initial and easiest hurdle toward the long-term goal of 100% renewable, green energy production. Yet, we have begun, and yes, we must continue; fuelled by a rising momentum, a resurgent economy and valuable lessons learned.

In 2015 energy related emissions accounted for 61% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland; the other large contributor being agriculture. During the lean years after the economic crash CO2 energy related emissions fell by 19% compared with 2005. However, fuelled by the re-emergent economy it rose in 2015 alone by 5.8%, with our dependency on imported fuel rising by three percent from 2014 to an amazing 88%; the remaining 12% being our own peat [Corrib gas came online in 2016]. Thankfully, since 1990 the carbon intensity of Irish electricity fell by another ‘amazing’ 49%. However, yet again and tellingly, it rose in 2015 by 2.5% due to our recent, rising energy demand requiring an increase in coal generated electricity. So where are we going wrong?

In transport, although CO2 emissions per car have dropped by 31% since 2000, with the economy revving back toward Celtic Tiger levels the number of exhausts roaring in our streets has also risen. As such, cars take the tiger’s share, at 43%, of energy consumption within the entire transport sector, which at 42% of our total energy use across all sectors, is itself the largest, and a rising, consumer of energy in the Irish economy, above industry and residential use. Oil accounted for 33% of our total energy use in 2015, while there were 983 electric cars in Ireland. There is only hope that the latter figure too can rise, dramatically.

In a country with not just spread out suburbs but also satellite commuter towns, adequate, economical and interconnected transport alternatives to the car is surely an issue and one with limited options to the commuter. The 2016 transport budget, 79% of which was allocated for land transport, saw an increase of 14% for public transport yet less than 1% was allocated to cycling. The rest was allocated to roads. An excellent road network is vital for economic success and growth but so too are greater investments in public transport and cycling, if we are to offer the commuter (long and short haul) viable, green alternatives.

Second to cars for CO2 emissions within the transport sector and more indicative of budding neo-Celtic Tiger consumption, is not HGVs at 13% but air travel at 18%. While collective it is a highly polluting mode of transport, which leaves its emissions directly up where it can do most damage. In 2015 alone air travel rose by 13%. Maybe we could reflect on the amount of short breaks and holidays abroad we take? Or take up cycling or walking as a transport option where possible? And, while not considered within the transport statistics, whether diesel, petrol or aviation fuel, we should not forget that plastic is also a derivative of oil. It comes with almost everything nowadays and most of it is not recyclable. How often do you put out your green bin compared with the black or the brown one? Is this really necessary? Does a head of cabbage have to come in a plastic bag, or wrapped on a hard plastic tray? Does each chocolate treat in the pack have to be individually packaged too? Etc.

Yet, what can we do?  Retailers do listen. We keep them in business, or not. Marketing is becoming more and more about listening to the customers’ wishes to protect the brand. Other than voting with your feet and shopping elsewhere, if there were such a local alternative available, one message we could send is by leaving the packaging behind in the store before leaving: or to simply write to them and ask for package-less alternatives. Ultimately it is down to the consumers’ choice. Reduced packaging and organic alternatives have been trialled and withdrawn where uptake by shoppers has been unprofitable to the stores. The issue is complex and a slow burner and the green, organic movement is still moving from alternative to mainstream.

Of our resources for electricity generation natural gas is the largest at 43% of the total; wind at 23%; coal still high at 25% and peat also, at 12%. When questioned, the only tentative argument for continued peat burning ventured was national fuel security. Although coal and peat together produce 59% of our total electricity generated CO2 emissions they contribute only 20% of total electricity generation. So we obviously need to develop other native and preferably green resources. Luckily, we are blessed with an abundance of them. It is just a matter of investing, developing and plugging into them.

On the plus side, Irish industry has a smaller carbon footprint than that of its European counterparts. However, easily negating this is the fact that Ireland has higher than average OECD Europe residential CO2 emissions; 31% higher and which again increased, by 3.5%, in 2015. Besides our climate, a major factor in this is Ireland’s wide demographic spread and general, cultural reticence up to recently to dense, urban planning.  Indeed, 61% of our residential CO2 emissions came from direct fuel use, emitting an average of 5.5 tonnes of CO2 per household in 2015, whereas in Europe, better use is made of district heating schemes within well-planned, densely urbanized areas. This also serves in reducing emissions by linking in with well planned, subsidised, adjacent and therefore, patronized public transport networks. Clearly we could, and must, do better but of all these sectors across transport, manufacturing, services and residential, only transport has a mandatory EU emissions target.

Of the renewable energy resources available to us wind energy has been the leader during the early phase of the conversion from grey to green energy and is by far Ireland’s largest contributor. However, it has not taken off as might have been expected given our blustery climate. The increased scale and costs of the equipment as the industry has progressed, plus the level and calibre of specialised support required for financial and project planning has largely stalled the progress of small, community projects, while the blueprints for cooperation between public and private partnerships have yet to develop and sink a firm foundation. Despite this however, wind, at 23% out of the total renewable energy electricity generation contribution of 27%, is the largest contributor by far at present. It should also be noted that, with Ireland’s sovereign sea territory being ten times that of its landmass and being located in the gusty North Atlantic, the potential for offshore wind-farms cannot be overlooked.

With huge reductions in the costs and similar increases in its efficiency, due to large-scale Chinese investment and development in the market, a new green competitor to wind is solar energy. However, like wind, with no incentives from the Irish government as yet, solar energy, although gaining traction in the market remains small on the commercial scale and also with uptake from homeowners, in both new and old-builds. That is not to say that the sector is not growing but it would surely mushroom if there were feed-in tariff incentives for small producers, connected to the national grid, to generate income from energy produced by their home while away at work, or if this could be off-set as credits against their own electricity use after returning home in the dark of evening.

Just as the cost of the solar panels has drastically decreased and opened up the market potential in recent years the next big step for the green energy sector will be the development of low cost energy storage batteries. The current paradigm will probably change once daytime generated energy from solar or wind can be stored and used when required, and when selling home or community generated electricity to the grid may not even be the desired option.

The bio-energy sector, incorporating biomass and bio-fuels, are also a current, rising trend in emerging, green, Irish companies. It is also a viable prospect for many farms to generate electricity as well as fertilizer from the gaseous by-product of animal rearing by using an anaerobic digester.

However, marine hydro-electricity, the newest and most challenging resource, still in its infancy, is the most exciting large-scale prospect for green, renewable energy generation. Its potential is enormous and a number of projects are being developed, proto-typed and trialled in Ireland. Indeed, should it be proven to work commercially and given our geographic location, when these projects are commercialized Ireland is ideally situated to be a major hub for tidal and wave electricity generation and an exporter of expertise as well as energy.

Tidal, above all could prove to be the goose that laid the golden egg because unlike market prices for bio-[or any other]fuel, the sun, wind or even the waves, the tide always runs and can be reliably measured, quantified, predicted, planned and developed far into the future; and its power is immense. While the potential effects to marine life are a concern and will require careful monitoring, the added bonus with tidal and wave energy is that, due to site locations, they offer the possibility of also generating a flood of high-skilled employment opportunities for large tracts of rural Ireland.

So, where do we stand in 2015 and beyond? In the last decade Ireland has improved in reducing its energy consumption and CO2 emissions but this was during some very lean and restrictive years. Now, despite some modifications, some of us may appear to be back on the road again, top down, radio up, sunglasses on, blissfully returning to indulgent and wasteful habits at an accelerating rate, whether we are aware of it or not. Yet, it need not be that way. We have the power to cut our bills, breadth life back into the land, the air and the sea AND have abundant energy.

With renewed vigour and capital in the economy; entrepreneurial opportunity; potential public projects as well as community educational and grant supports from the tax injection into the national coffers; and despite, if not because of, the looming challenges of Brexit, Ireland, her people and government, stand at a precipice. Which way will she pivot? What are her priorities? To whom does she listen, and serve? Green and clean; renewable and free!!; long-term; involving community collaboration and/or ownership, or: grey and polluting, finite and expensive; imported; short-term; involving politics, corporate lobbying and commercial, private interests? Can Irish communities generate their own electricity en masse, learning by participating in the process and become aware and responsible at consumer / grass roots level for the health of their locality? Could public and private cooperate and exist in green, symbiotic harmony? Is there the will for this in Ireland, on both sides?

Whichever be the model for our energy generation into the future, it is shown that because now that some of us can some of us are regressing back into profligate and detrimental habits with regard to the connection between our consumption and our collective future. So with climate change catching up on us, the post-crash re-emergence of investment and development opportunities and the clock ticking on our commitments to EU 2020 and COP21, rather than a muddy and aspirational national mitigation plan, what is needed are; a strong national framework and supports; public education and visually inspiring and provoking examples of green energy in, if not by, the community; transparency and motivation; hope, trust and collaboration: and the time to decide, build momentum and act is now. The future is bright.

For further details on the information contained within please refer to the SEAI energy data report 2015: http://www.seai.ie/Publications/Statistics_Publications/Energy_in_Ireland/Energy-in-Ireland-1990-2015.pdf
You may also consider making a contribution to ‘Make This Country Green Again!’ by forwarding your interest and concern to your TD and ask them what they think; what is their party policy on the matter and to outline their supports, plans and initiatives, local and national? You might instigate interest for a community group on green issues or on investigating the interest and possibilities for your own community electricity generation project? You might also take a look at your own energy consumption habits and general purchasing choices and reflect on their affects, direct and indirect? Or you might take up cycling as a fun way to be outdoors and stay fit while getting from A to B? Everybody can do something green and in doing so, by meeting, talking and mixing together we can see that we are not alone.

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