We Need to Ramp Up the Use of All Renewables

We Need to Ramp Up the Use of All Renewables

Oisin Coghlan, Director of Friends of the Earth


We’ve been asked to address the question “Ireland’s Energy Crisis: What’s to be done?”. The Chinese word for crisis comprises two characters, one for danger and one for opportunity. And the good news is that I think there are huge opportunities for Ireland in the rapid transformation of the world’s energy system that we are now embarking on. But a word first on the danger.

We now know with 95% certainty that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming and climate change. That’s the same level of certainty we have that smoking causes cancer. So far, global temperatures have risen by 1°C and we are already seeing the impacts of a changing climate. Political leaders from across the world have agreed that we need to limit global warming to less than 2°C – that’s not a safe limit, but they consider it a level of risk they can live with.

But on current emissions trends we are heading for 4 degrees of global warming before the end of the century. That may not sound like a lot. We’d all like it to be 4 degrees warmer today. When we go on a foreign holiday we want it to be 10 degrees warmer. But 4 degrees is a global average – a measure of the extra energy we are injecting into the world’s climate system; energy that manifests itself in storms, droughts and floods. The best analogy is with the temperature of the human body. If your temperature goes up by 2°C you have a fever. If it goes up by 4°C and stays there, you die.

The World Bank has described a 4 degree warmer world as “incompatible with an organized global community”. One of the world’s leading scientists has described the difference between 2 and 4 degrees of global warming as “human civilization”. So what does staying under 2 degrees of warming mean for our energy system? Well a bunch of former hedge fund managers in London, worried about their investments in fossil fuel companies, started running the numbers a few years ago. Their answer: having a decent shot at staying under 2°C means leaving at least two thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground, unburned. That analysis has since been endorsed by everybody from the Governor of the Bank England to the incoming Director of the International Energy Agency to Mary Robinson and most recently Pope Francis. The fossil fuel age is over-or we risk human civilization being over.

When John F Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade … not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard” scientists were aghast because the necessary technology did not yet exist. But the setting of the objective drove progress and eight years later the US launched a successful moonshot, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

Recently, NASA released its first new picture of the Earth from space since 1972, the year that Apollo 17 delivered the last man to the moon. And our blue planet, our only home, looks as magnificent and as fragile as ever. What we need now is an Apollo Programme to get us off fossil fuels. An Earthshot, if you will.

Thankfully, much of the technology we need to go fossil free has already been invented by scientists and engineers. What’s been lacking has been the political will to make it happen. But happily, as Al Gore put it, political will is a renewable resource. Our government has already adopted the policy objective of reducing our CO2 emissions from electricity, buildings and transport by at least 80% by 2050. And the Climate Action Bill will give that policy objective legal recognition when it is finally passed in the Autumn. The Energy White Paper, also due in the Autumn, is Ireland’s chance to set out our plans to become fossil free within a generation.

There are five things the White Paper needs to do:

  1. Put energy efficiency first
  2. Start the phase out of fossil fuels
  3. Unleash a solar revolution
  4. Enable us to become energy citizens rather than customers of consumers
  5. Promote household and community ownership of renewables.

  1. Making “Energy Efficiency First” happen: Investing the carbon tax in an SSIA for retrofitting.

Friends of the Earth has welcomed the emphasis in the EU’s Energy Union strategy on putting “Energy Efficiency First”. As EU Climate Action Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, put it: “Energy we do not use is the cheapest, most sustainable, and most secure energy we have.” The Economist calls it “the invisible fuel”.

The White Paper is a golden opportunity to indicate a new level of commitment to investing in making it actually happen in practice. This will no doubt involve a number of initiatives over time but we would argue it needs something of the scale and attractiveness of the SSIA scheme to achieve large scale buy-in from households.  The SSIA scheme gave each of the 1.2 million account-holders 1 euro for every 4 they invested, up to a maximum €15,000 invested. The cost to the exchequer was €2.5 billion over the 5 years of the scheme.

We built one third of our total housing stock during the 10 years of the boom and bubble, much of it to poor energy standards. As it happens, it is estimated that around 1.2 million homes could benefit from being upgraded through retrofitting, at a total cost of around €14 billion, between €10,000 and €15,000 per house.

A state incentive of €1 for every €4 invested in retrofitting, while totalling more than €2.5 billion in exchequer investment, could be spread over 15 years and would essentially amount to no more than forgoing VAT on private investment in retrofitting. Indeed, it would save the exchequer money by avoiding fines for missing our EU 2030 emissions target, as well as resulting in warmer homes, lower fuel bills and jobs in the building industry. To be as appealing as possible it should be a cashback scheme rather than a VAT exemption. It could be a funded from carbon tax revenue, which brought in almost €400 million in 2014, but should be seen as part of the capital expenditure programme.

This would not solve the whole of the financing challenge. A pay-as-you-a-save scheme or some other form of household credit would be necessary to enable people to raise their share of the investment. Moreover, increased investment of carbon tax revenue in retrofitting the homes of those at risk of fuel poverty would also be needed. Again, the short term cost to the exchequer would be more than offset by savings in the €500 million annual spend on a refined fuel allowance scheme.

It’s also worth mentioning that if our total housing stock needs to use at least 80% less energy in 2050 then every single new house built from now on needs to be zero carbon. That’s why we’ve been so critical of Minister Kelly’s warnings to local authorities in Dublin that they shouldn’t let energy standards get in the way of building new homes quickly and cheaply. Zero-carbon homes save you money. And we simply can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.

  1. Start the phase out of fossil fuels
  • End the burning of peat for electricity by 2020
  • Prepare for Moneypoint to stop burning coal before 2025
  • Ban fracking.

If at least two thirds of all existing fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground now is not the time for Ireland to start drilling up and down the country looking for shale gas. Production from US wells is tailing off far faster than predicted. The methane leakage from the drilling process means any projected emissions savings compared to coal are questionable. There are legitimate public health concerns about drinking water. And with a dispersed rural population relying on farming and tourism, fracking poses too great a threat to a sustainable rural Ireland.

Extracting peat on an industrial scale is the most inefficient way to make electricity and the most carbon intensive way, worse even than coal. And we still subsidize it in Ireland to the tune of €80 million a year. Co-firing the peat stations with biomass is not a solution, because it extends the time the bogs are uncovered for extraction. And while they are uncovered they leak greenhouse gases. We need to end the subsidy, end extraction and rewet the bogs to allow them become carbon sponges and stores again.

Ending peat burning by 2020 does not necessarily mean that the three midland power stations have to close. The Edenderry plant has already run on 80% biomass on occasion. If they can be run on 100% biomass from locally grown crops then we can also ensure a just transition for the workers in the peat industry.

Moneypoint is due to reach the end of its useful life by 2025. And we cannot continue to burn imported coal for electricity. I’m sceptical of claims that it can be converted to biomass. It’s hard to see us producing enough in Ireland and importation brings a host of problems from security of supply to the environmental and social impact where it’s being grown. We are already seeing land grabs from poor farmers in Africa to grow palm oil for export. Indeed I understand that Edenderry is burning palm kernels

  1. Ramp up renewables – and unleash a solar revolution

Ireland was not rich in the natural resources of the fossil fuel age. But we are rich in the resources of the post-fossil age. We are the second windiest country in Europe after Scotland. And just as we have to leave most of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground we can’t afford to leave most of our wind energy in the air. But it’s not all about wind. We need to ramp up all renewables. There are only 6 anaerobic digestion plants in the Republic compared to 26 in the North. We need to simplify licencing, grid access and price support for this form of renewables, the raw materials for which are in plentiful supply on Irish farms.

And for me the most exciting area is solar. Thanks to German investment and Chinese manufacturing innovation the price of solar PV panels is plummeting, making it a viable technology in Ireland. A solar panel in Dublin will yield 80% of the electricity of a solar panel in Madrid, thanks to our longer daylight hours. During the recent heatwave in the UK solar provided 15% of their electricity.

But a word of caution, if we are to avoid the sort of backlash that has recently hit the wind industry we need to have a policy of community and household rooftop solar first. Locally appropriate industrial solar can follow.

Overall on renewables, an Irish academic based in Denmark has developed a scenario for a 100% renewable energy system for Ireland. David Connolly’s Green Plan Ireland is easy to find online.

  1. Enable us to become energy citizens not just consumers or customers

We have discovered time and again, from Carnsore to Corrib and from frackpads to pylons, that if you don’t involve people in a meaningful way in the energy decisions that will affect them they will rightly feel alienated, put-upon, or ripped off. And their resistance will delay or derail your “best laid” plans and pipelines. All too often the first time a community really becomes aware of an energy project is when it begins to appear outside their door. We have to work much harder to involve citizens in the actual choices we face in energy. Because it’s not pylons or no pylons, or wind or no wind: it’s wind or fracking or nuclear, or coal till we fry our future.

After considerable urging from us and others, the White Paper process made a start on that kind of engagement, with regional town hall meetings as well as thematic seminars in Dublin. But it was only a start. The energy transformation we need will only succeed if it is a collective, societal enterprise. And that will require sustained political leadership and engagement with citizens about the trade-offs we face during the transition.

  1. Promote household and community ownership of renewables.

The best way to achieve societal ownership of the energy transition is to enable people to actually own or part-own local energy projects. The best known community energy project in Ireland is the Templederry windfarm in Tipperary. But it took 10 years for that group to bring the project to fruition. If we are to replicate their success across the country, community groups need a support service in the shape of an intermediary agency as recommended by the NESC report. They also need a streamlined process to access the grid. And as they have in Scotland, the White Paper should set a target for community-owned renewables and establish a start-up fund to help kick start projects.

Friends of the Earth very much supports an Irish version of the “Danish model” for shared ownership of developer-led projects, where 20% of the equity is made available for purchase by people living within a certain radius of the project. The White Paper should make a clear commitment to introducing a similar framework here. Enabling local buy-in, literally, to the equity of all developer-led renewable generation projects can transform a community’s experience of such projects.

Finally, back to solar. Even with falling solar panel prices and long days there’s no sense in me putting one on my roof at the moment – because I’ll be forced to give away for free to the grid any energy I generate but don’t use myself. Mandating a payment for electricity from solar generation is key to unlocking a new era of progress on renewables. It can also help reset the debate on renewables in Ireland because it has the potential for mass participation in generation like no other technology–not just at household level but more significantly at community level. There over 1000 parishes in Ireland, over 2000 GAA clubs and over 3000 primary schools, most with south facing roofs on their properties. When it makes sense for them to club together and put a solar panel on their buildings we can unleash a community energy revolution in Ireland. And I look forward to all those Green Schools becoming Solar Schools over the next 10 years. But first the White Paper has to make it possible by promising a price for solar power.



Yesterday, the MacGill Summer School honoured the contribution of T.K. Whitaker to Irish public life. It strikes me that Minister White and this Government have the opportunity to make the White Paper as ambitious for the transformation of our energy system as Whitaker’s “Grey Book” was for the transformation of our economy. If Ireland is to have a sustainable, secure and affordable energy system that is zero carbon by mid-century it is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.


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