Paul Deane: Enhancing Ireland’s energy security starts with local bus lane

We have little control over global events that threaten our energy security — so this State must take initiatives here at home, including cutting back on the energy we use, writes Paul Deane.

Paul Deane: Enhancing Ireland’s energy security starts with local bus lane

We have little control over global events that threaten our energy security — so this State must take initiatives here at home, including cutting back on the energy we use, writes Paul Deane.

IT is difficult to appreciate how a narrow stretch of water 40km wide and almost 8,000km away can impact how much we pay to heat our homes and fuel our cars in Ireland this winter.

The Strait of Hormuz situated between Oman and Iran is the world’s most important shipping route for oil. It connects global markets to the massive producers of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. It is also the world’s largest oil transit chokepoint. Each day, 18m barrels of oil (enough to meet Ireland’s oil needs for three months) flow through the strait to international markets.

In energy markets, geopolitical events ripple around the world as price spikes. Ireland — as a country that uses so much energy and produces so little — is deeply exposed to these events.

Last year’s attacks in Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in Abqaiq, and the more recent US drone strikes killing Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani, resulted in short sharp spikes in global oil prices of up to 20%.

While the world’s producers today are more resilient to these types of geopolitical events (more diverse production is available, particularly from the US, and countries such as China are holding more oil in reserve), the impact is still important. The recent escalation of events in Iran has caused jitters again in oil markets.

Ireland does not import any oil directly from the Middle East — we rely on Norway, the UK, and, to a lesser extent, Nigeria and Algeria, for our oil needs. We pay a global price for oil and this is why these events impact us.

The complete closure of the Strait of Hormuz is unlikely, but most events are considered unlikely until they happen. Any disruptions to shipments through the strait, however, will impact oil prices and leave importers rushing to find alternatives sources of supply. This would impact Ireland as most other countries.

Ireland relies on imports for about 70% of all our energy needs. This includes oil, coal, gas and electricity. But Ireland is 100% reliant on imported oil meeting half of our energy needs, and this demand is increasing.

In the medium term, the expectation is that Ireland’s import dependency for both oil and gas will increase. This reflects the fact that Ireland does not have significant indigenous fossil fuel resources, and has only in recent years begun to harness significant quantities of renewable resources.

Oil is used mainly to keep our cars moving, fuel our planes and trucks, and keep over 700,000 of our homes warm. Without oil, our economy would grind to a halt, and implementing technology alternatives to oil such as electric vehicles and electric heating are important, but will take time and investment.

The cheapest type of energy is energy we don’t use, and changing behaviour patterns and using our cars less is one powerful complementary lever to reduce Ireland’s oil needs. We use our cars a staggering amount in Ireland.

Last year, we drove over 35bn kilometres — a distance from planet Earth to the edge of interstellar space and back again in just 12 months. Over the same period, as a nation, we collectively spent 70 years standing in forecourts putting petrol and diesel into our cars. Twice as many children now get dropped to primary school gates by car than walk to school — a complete reverse of the situation 30 years ago where most children walked to school.

Using our cars less is good for energy security. We would import less oil and be less exposed to geopolitical events — but it is also good for the environment. We would pollute less, and it’s also good for our health — we would be more physically active.

But behaviour change is never easy. We all want action on environmental problems but few of us want inconvenience.

This is a huge challenge, and we tend to focus on technology solutions because they allow us to continue our current lifestyles with as little disruption as possible. But, given the scale of our energy use, technology solutions alone can only go so far.

Enhancing energy security is often associated with building infrastructure such as pipelines and storage to protect energy supply — but infrastructure to reduce demand such as bus corridors, light rail, cycle lanes, and shared mobility alternatives must also be considered.

The history of energy policy in Ireland has been predominantly one shaped by reacting to international events that occur far from our borders such as oil crises.

We have little control over how these events impact our energy supply and prices — but we have some power over how much energy we choose to use.

Waiting for the next crisis is a poor strategy. Reducing energy use will insulate us from these events.

Paul Deane is a research fellow at the MaREI Centre, University College Cork.

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