Renewable energy - It’s time to plan rather than hope

The vast majority of energy consumed on this island, a figure of around 90%, is imported.

Translated into cash terms, that’s around €7bn every year, or, if you prefer your statistics to be more immediate, close enough to €1m leaving these shores every single hour.

As carbon resources become more expensive because of scarcity or increased extraction costs, those figures can go in only one direction.

Yesterday the price of Brent crude oil stood at around $108. This is expected to climb even higher — the International Energy Agency predicts that prices will hit $150 a barrel in the not-too-distant future.

Add to those enormous sums the expectation that we will miss our EU 2020 — in the not-too-distant-future as well — carbon emission obligations by between 4.1m and 30m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent and we need to budget for severe, multi-million penalties. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that we face fines of up to €350m a year.

These figures are so great, the dependence so absolute, that even if our economy had not collapsed, we would have to do something pretty radical to find an alternative way of keeping the lights on.

Options — wind and tide primarily — exist but it seems we have, as in so many other areas, been happier to talk about change than implement or embrace it.

One simple figure shows this. EU law decrees that by 2020, at least 16% of all energy consumed in Ireland should be from renewable sources. At the end of last year, that figure stood at 4.3%. Despite knowing about this obligation for some years, we have not done anything like enough to meet our obligations. In some instances we have done the opposite.

Measures such as changing tax arrangements on biofuels killed off the domestic bio-ethanol industry. This was especially unfortunate as a large proportion of Irish bioethanol was made from waste generated by the dairy sector, therefore avoiding the charge of using food-producing land to produce fuel.

Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte yesterday asserted that Ireland could be a significant exporter of renewableenergy, thereby creating thousands of jobs. The minister even suggested that we might eventually export as much energy as we consume.

Launching his department’s renewable energy strategy until 2020 yesterday, Mr Rabbitte said that the Government intends to stimulate on- and offshore and wind generation for domestic and export markets. It also wants to boost the bio-energy sector, specifically forestry and energy crops. Another goal is to continue to develop wave and tidal resources.

There’s hardly a person in the country who would not support these aspirations but, as ever, the stasis that grips too much of Irish public life seems to have taken hold — one incredible example being the West of Ireland wind energy co-op that has been told that it might be 2020 before it can be connected to the national grid.

Unlike the economic crisis, we have had plenty of warnings about the consequences of not becoming less dependent on international energy markets and not realising the full potential of our renewable resources.

Today’s reports about how much more expensive electricity in Ireland is compared to the rest of the EU is just one consequence.

Maybe it’s time we began to take the issue a bit more seriously. Maybe it’s time to plan rather than just hope things will work out.


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