Challenge to harness energy potential

WHEN the late US President John F Kennedy first spoke, in 1961, about his plan to put a man on the moon within a decade, he did not know how it was going to be done.

The technology to make his dream a reality did not exist at the time and many people thought it could never happen.

But the vision and the challenge were set. Committed people started working towards that daunting ambition and achieved it. The same can be done to make Ireland energy-independent, according to John Travers, an Irish and international energy expert and a chartered engineer who has worked at Shell International.

He is convinced we can also become a world leader in generating clean energy, harnessing the power of wind, wave and sun. A bit like the notion of ‘a man on the moon’, this might sound far-fetched given that we currently depend on imported fuels to provide the great bulk of our energy.

Despite the clouds that hang over the country, however, we can user modern solar technology to tap into the heat of the sun: the waves that crash against our coastline are among the most powerful in the world, while our winds are among the strongest on the planet.

Mr Travers comes up with the following interesting statistics to support his views:

* Total wind energy for Ireland is nearly 200 times the total electricity we consume. To install and operate the wind turbines needed to take full advantage of this resource would cost less than a quarter of the investment needed to shore up all our banks and building societies.

* Eleven times the annual electricity used on the entire island could be provided by harnessing the power of the sea.

* Readily available sources of biofuel could provide 12% of national transport fuel needs, exceeding the EU’s 10% target.

“This enormous wealth of renewable energy is more than three times the amount of energy required by the nation at present and in the foreseeable future,” he says, adding that it gives us an opportunity to be a major exporter of energy.

In his latest book, Green and Gold, he writes that Ireland’s accessible renewable energy is equal to annual production of 400 million barrels of oil, roughly the same as oil-rich Oman, or three-quarters of the production in the North Sea.

Critically, of course, renewable energy sources do not just vanish over time, but provide a safe supply on a permanent basis in an era when fossil fuels, such as oil, are diminishing fast. A fifth of our total energy needs could be met by renewable sources by 2020, a first step towards energy independence, Mr Travers believes.

Reaching such a target would be crucially important as it would involve the completion of most of the necessary infrastructure for the future. “The wells of renewable energy would have been successfully tapped and Ireland could continue to reap the abundant resources of wind, solar, wave and biomass that are available,” he says.

In a fascinating look at the potential of green energy here, he argues that providing 80% of our energy requirements from such sources can become a reality. All of which, of course, is aspirational but which can happen, with the right leadership, as landing a man on the moon proved more than 40 years ago.

Separately but on a closely related topic, comes a warning of a skills shortage unless people are adequately trained in green skills and technologies.

We’re consistently being told by experts the future of the economy is on green developments and green jobs. However, according to Professor Frank Convery, of Comhar Sustainable Development Council, businesses, especially smaller operators, do not have the resources to upgrade their employee skills to take advantage of a green wave.

For this reason, green skills training must be integrated into existing education and training programmes. Unless a concerted effort is made to upskill our existing and prospective labour force, Ireland risks having a skills shortage scenario, thereby missing the potential boom that a green economy can offer, he warns.

“Ireland’s economic crisis offers an opportunity to fundamentally change the way our economy and society operate so that we can avoid boom and bust patterns. The movement of the global economy in a low-carbon, high-energy-efficiency direction is a trend that will intensify and it is timely that Ireland takes full advantage of it,” he says.

Traditional apprenticeship programmes also need to be modified so that plumbers, electricians and builders have the knowledge and skills to install green technologies.

* Green & Gold – Ireland a Clean Energy World Leader? by John Travers, is published by The Collins Press at €14.99.


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