GEOFF PERCIVAL: Urgency for government action as clock ticks down to energy-alternatives target

This year looks set to be a defining one for Ireland’s energy landscape, writes Geoff Percival.

This year looks set to be a defining one for Ireland’s energy landscape, as the Government scrambles to deploy additional renewable energy resources to avoid, or at least reduce the fines which would accrue from missing binding EU 2020 energy targets.

Ireland has committed that 16% of energy consumption will come from renewable sources by 2020. For this to happen, individual targets for power generation, heating and energy used in transport have been set. Figures released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in October suggest that Ireland looks likely to miss targets for heat and transport. There is now also significant doubt that targets for renewable electricity generation will be met.

In addition to failing to meet energy targets, Energy Minister Denis Naughten recently raised fears that Ireland would not meet separate targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, describing the targets as being “inappropriate”.

While agriculture and increased methane emissions from cows are identified as a key consideration in the emissions debate, the contradictions of Irish energy policy are also part of the story.

There has seen a substantial amount of Ireland’s power generation coming from coal, one of the heaviest emitters. In terms of funding, while consumers pay for wind generation through the Public Service Obligation element of their bills, they also pay a substantial subsidy for generation from peat--another heavy emitting fuel. These contradictions do little to help achieve the overall goal of reducing emissions.

To date, the Government’s strategy on renewable electricity has placed a very heavy emphasis on onshore wind. While this policy has seen Irish wind generation hit 2,800 MW of energy, approximately 60% of demand on the island of Ireland, recent planning decisions suggest that the pipeline for new onshore wind projects may grow tighter.

With economic recovery increasing energy demand and a significant IDA Ireland focus on attracting high energy intensity projects, such as data centres, the targets are becoming more challenging to achieve. The Government has indicated that it is now considering providing price supports for technologies such as solar and offshore wind.

Both technologies have the advantage of being less visually intrusive and both have seen significant cost reductions in recent years. Minister Naughten has announced an extension to the existing REFIT II scheme for onshore wind. While there is some chance of achieving targets for power generation, the targets for transport energy look even more challenging. All motor fuel sold in Ireland has, up to recently, contained approximately 6% biofuels. This rose to 8.6% at the beginning of the year.

The other pillar of Government policy has been a commitment to promote the use of electric vehicles. The target, which has already been lowered, is for 50,000 vehicles by 2020.

Commercial vehicles make up an important part of Ireland’s transport energy use and Gas Networks Ireland has recently announced plans for the roll-out of a network of Compressed Natural Gas filling stations for its commercial vehicles. The project, which has received EU funding, will see 70 refuelling stations open around the country.

The Thermal Energy piece of the jigsaw will also see progress in 2017. A Renewable Heat Incentive is due to be published in the coming weeks. Thermal energy, the energy used for heating, makes up approximately a third of Ireland’s total energy requirement. Energy infrastructure takes time to build and lasts between 20 and 30 years. Mistakes in energy policy tend to last and as such, policy makers have been naturally slow to make technology choices.

With very significant fines now under three years away, Ireland will have to make significant policy decisions in 2017 if the necessary investments are to be made. Minister Naughton has a busy year ahead.


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