Fintan O’Toole wrote last week about the desirability of Ireland really getting serious about off-shore wind farms and the possibility that Ireland might become an important exported of energy to the EU. I imagine that few people would oppose such development and that most people would strongly support it.
That in turn raises the question as to who exactly can make it happen. It can’t just be left to un-named investors to make decisions as to where and when it will happen – if it is to happen.
At 10.15am on 25th March 2022, immediate demand for electricity on the island of Ireland was 5124 megawatts (mw). Our installed wind generation capacity of 5000 mw was yielding just 10 mw. The wind wasn’t blowing. For the 24 hour period up to 7pm that day, renewables provided 3% of our energy need; gas supplied 63% and coal 20%.
It seems that even if we expand our wind energy capacity by another 5000 mw or quintuple that to 25,000 mw, there will be days when wind will deliver less than 1% of instantaneous electricity demand and less than 5% of demand over 24 hours. Due to the move away from other fossil fuel sources, our need for natural gas generation will last for decades and will actually increase.
I get a very worrying feeling that the Government – and particularly our Energy minister, Eamon Ryan – isn’t so much planning as hoping. I hope I am wrong, but all the signs are there that Ireland is drifting towards permanent energy crisis and insecurity. This could have catastrophic economic outcomes for Ireland.
The Government has the huge responsibility of preventing such a catastrophe. They are encouraging the growth of data centres. They are setting targets for electrification of cars, trains and vans. They are setting targets for ending the widespread use of fossil fuels. Ryan is absolutely opposed to building a new LNG plant in the Shannon estuary for some reason. He stopped all off-shore exploration for gas although we know that the Corrib field will be exhausted in a short number of years.
But there are other things that we know. We know we will need gas-generated electricity capacity for the next twenty or thirty years. Will there be a reliable supply of gas for that period? Can we afford to be wholly at the mercy of international energy markets? Is Tarbert or Moneypoint capable of meeting any shortfall in our energy needs by burning coal or oil as back-up capacity?
The Irish Academy of Engineering - a respected expert body – is currently working on a discussion paper on the implications for Ireland of Europe’s energy crisis. It will undoubtedly make sobering reading – and it should ring alarm bells in Merrion Street - when published.
While the Government is to publish its own report on energy security later this year, engineers are aware that we will, one way or the other, be dependent on gas energy in the “short and medium term”.
All of this is massively accentuated by the crisis created by the Ukraine war. The West simply cannot afford to finance annihilation of Ukraine by payments for Russian oil and gas. But we must face the realities of Europe’s (and Ireland’s) dependency on Russian energy exports. There are no easy solutions to the emerging crisis. But we are facing some options that Minister Ryan will choke on, I think.
Economic and social consequences for Ireland of this oncoming crisis could well over-shadow the economic crisis of 2008-9. Just as our banking system collapsed in that crisis, our entire economy could be very seriously damaged again if we fail to plan now for obvious implications of what is already happening around us. We cannot afford to have extensive, rationing, black-outs or brown outs.
The Government’s first priority must be to avert such damage to the maximum extent possible. I argued here last year that there was no need for Ireland to be the most ambitious in climate change policy (and I got predictable stick from predictable quarters for so doing). I suggest that the Government must now prioritise safeguarding our economy and society from immediate issues arising from the crisis rather than blindly adhere to climate-change goals that were set in a very different political and economic pre-Ukraine era.
Constraints fixed in carbon budgeting legislation cannot be allowed to become an inflexible autopilot mechanism guiding us into the side of the looming economic mountainside.
We need honest and urgent action led by a coherent government. Everything must be on the table. Do we need to go nuclear? Do we need more gas infrastructure including storage terminals? Can we meet all our climate change goals by 2030?
These things matter much more than piffling debate about sod turf, lettuce in window boxes, or shortening our morning showers.