KYRAN FITZGERALD: About time we put our energy in right direction with renewables

IF Ireland were a house, a visitor would surely conclude that a lot of money needs to be spent on the property.

True, there have been improvements, but some of the paint is peeling. Gutters are blocked. A lot of heat is escaping through chimneys and draughty windows. 

A car in the garage belches out dirty diesel when the ignition key is turned.

But will the owners make that trip to the bank manager to secure the necessary funding for the changes, or will they sit back and watch the place gradually deteriorate while they fritter money away on pleasurable activities?

The message being put forward by Engineers Ireland is clear. 

We, as a country, need to double the national spend on key infrastructure if we are to remain an attractive location for foreign investment and if we are to meet increasingly challenging climate-related renewable energy targets.

The body’s ‘State of Ireland’ report certainly makes for interesting reading. Its focus, this time around, is on the energy sector. 

In part, this is due to the publication, last Christmas, by the Government of a white paper on energy, the first since 2007. 

The Institute’s new president, Dermot Byrne, was head of Eirgrid up until 2012 following a long career in the ESB.

The promotion of renewable energy is, for him, a major priority.

While keen to promote the use of renewables, energy conservation is also seen as a key goal, helping us along the road to meet our energy consumption commitments by 2020.

As things stand, we will fall well short of meeting those targets. So, how can we get back on track?

The Institute report calls for “deep retrofits” of domestic, commercial and public buildings.

While 300,000 out of 1.7m Irish homes have been re-adapted, much more needs to be done.

According to Sustainable Energy Ireland, a staggering €35bn should be spent, over the next 35 years, reducing levels of house-based carbon consumption, at an average cost of €200,000 per dwelling.

The challenge is daunting. The recent white paper has set a target of moving the equivalent of 300,000 homes, or 200 large industrial sites, to carbon efficiency by 2020.

The public sector must lead the way, according to Dermot Byrne, who believes that tackling the looming challenges posed by climate change should be given absolute priority.

Take Irish hospitals. They are among the most intensive users of energy accounting for half a million tonnes of carbon emissions, each year. A target has been set to halve this figure by 2020.

In Mr Byrne’s view, “the public sector needs to set an example”.

With this in mind, an objective of a one third increase in energy efficiency (through reduced consumption) has been set.

New technologies will play a key role. Cork is a major hub of innovation through the Cork Institute of Technology and the Tyndall Institute.

An energy research strategy is due for publication shortly. Expect more emphasis on the development of smart grids, for example.

Investment in new capacity will have to continue and if anything, be enhanced as the economy grows.

A new national planning framework is reaching the consultation stage. Its aim will be to properly plan for the increase in the population and its most efficient dispersal. We have been here before. A national spatial strategy was put in place in the early years of the Celtic Tiger.

It fell victim to localist political pressures along with the very integrity of our planning process.

We are living with the consequences of a scatter-gun approach to development.

The roll-out of new capacity in wind generation and in the electricity network has been attended by much controversy, with local communities often fiercely opposed, sometimes with good reason, to the construction of pylons and wind farms.

A major plus point is that Ireland is not faced with the same looming problems in relation to electricity generation that our near neighbour, the UK, is burdened with. But major investments in further interconnection will be required if the full benefits of our renewable resources, such as wind, in particular, are to be captured.

Energy prices here remain high by European standards. In part, at least, this is due to the dispersed nature of our population. Splendid residential isolation comes at a cost.

The reality is that we are unlikely to relocate any time soon into compact settlements.

The promotion of energy efficiency in heating and transport is a more attainable goal over the short to medium term. To date, we have largely fallen down, here.

As much as 80% of all journeys are made by road, and three quarters by private car.

Dirty diesel accounts for 56% of transport-related energy consumption.

A vanishingly small number - 0.06% - use plug-in electric vehicles.

Most of our houses remain carbon inefficient along with many public offices.

The engineers’ body proposes a mix of exhortation/education, aimed at individuals and bodies, along with financial incentives and best practice.

A requirement for energy audits, currently in place for public sector and large commercial entities, would extend to cover smaller enterprises and retail centres.

There would be a new system of accelerated capital allowances to promote investment in energy efficient equipment.

The report welcomes the commitment of key players — ‘corporate thought leaders’ — such as Apple and Facebook to carbon free energy use.

New forms of energy generation such as anaerobic digestion plants for the manufacture of biogas are suggested.

But innovations must make sense. Eight years ago, the ESB and Department of Energy began promoting electric vehicles with a €5,000 subsidy, VRT exemption and promise of low road tax. Today, just 1,700 EVs are registered in this country.

Concerns about battery life and the initial vehicle cost has stymied this initiative so far.

Investment must be carefully prioritised and co-ordinated.

The public must be brought on board. It is a battle of heart and minds. As Dermot Byrne puts it: “We need to engage with communities. Climate change is coming at us.

The Government needs to get really serious about the transport and heating sectors. There needs to be a fundamental understanding of where we are heading if we don’t act. There needs to be more urgency.”


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