What is Ireland’s energy future?

Now, the dust has settled on the Paris climate summit, it’s a good time to assess where Ireland’s – and the world’s – power generation future lies.

Click above to hear discussion on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast 30/12/2015)

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Ireland has a huge wind energy resource, offshore and on land. If tapped the country could become a net energy exporter (Credit: Irish Wind Energy Association)

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Despite the agreements announced in Paris, China is set to continue building a new coal fired power plant every 7 to 10 days, while India and Japan are increasing, not reducing, their reliance on cheap coal.

Meanwhile, oil prices are falling, driven by a global oil glut driven by increased oil supplies. Despite claims that oil supplies are running out, geology suggests the world has substantial untapped oil supplies.

In this context, the big question is how will Ireland, and the world, wean itself off coal and petrol, and how will energy be generated in 2050?

The top five energy consumers in the world today are China, the USA, India, Russia, and Japan. This is significant because none of the big five would be renowned for their record on supporting clean energy options.

China is key to this story, as it has now surpassed the US as the main energy consumer in the world. China is increasing its dependence on coal, and building new coal fired plants at an alarming rate.

Coal is cheap, readily available, and China believes that coal is what will improve living standards to match those of the west. In the same way, that Britain used ‘King Coal’ to become a 19th century superpower.

Meanwhile, India, another Asian giant, is also increasing its reliance on coal, for the same reasons that China is taking this route. Coal is cheap, and provides a shortcut to industrial development and prosperity.

Let’s not forget that developing reliable, economically viable energy alternatives requires high technology, patience and lots of funding.

Keep in mind too that 250 million Indian people live in homes without electricity. That’s more people than the combined populations of Germany, France and the UK, all living without electricity.

Globally, some 1.2 billion people live without electricity. Is that ethical?

Russia as we know is a significant exporter of oil and gas, and much of the gas we use here in Ireland comes from Russia.

Japan is an interesting case, because it is a highly industrialised country, but it lacks a cheap, home based energy source. This is why it went down the nuclear route, but that, as we saw with Fukushima in March 2011, led to disaster. They too are now turning to cheap sources of coal.

The US, meanwhile, is heavily dependent on its home based reserves of natural gas to provide its electricity needs, and Middle Eastern oil to keep its love affair with motor car going.

Clean energy

Approximately 11 per cent of the world’s energy consumption comes from so-called ‘renewable energy’ sources. That’s according to the US Energy Information Administration.

When we say ‘renewable’ we mean energy generated from non-polluting sources, which can be used over and over again without negative effects. The main renewable sources of energy come from biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind.

The same US body, which is a reputable source, predicts that by 2040, 15 per cent of the world’s energy will be from renewables by 2040.

The message then is that our energy needs are overwhelming provided by fossil fuel, greenhouse gas generating sources, and that the changeover to renewables is happening slowly – perhaps too slowly.

coal-burning-factory-in-china

China continues to build a new coal fired power plant, on average – every 7 to 10 days. Like this one in the city of Baotou, in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Photo : REUTERS/David Gray)

Whither Paris?

This is where the Paris agreement comes in, because without a major push, there is no reason why – economically speaking – countries or companies or individuals should shift to using renewable energy.

The main point was that governments agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Above 1.5 Celsius and scientists believe we are into uncharted territory where climate and weather might cross a variety of ‘tipping points’.

Lurking in our future is the ominous, and very real threat of rapid, and severe climate cooling, provoked initially by warming.

Recent data shows that we have already reached 1C above pre-industrial levels and there is no sign of emissions of ‘greenhouse gas’ falling.

The emissions figures are interesting. China is responsible for 28% or more than a quarter of the world’s emissions.

The US is next at 16%, then the EU at 10 per cent. Together, China, the US, India, Russia, Japan and the EU make up 70% of global emissions. The rest, about 150 countries or so, make up just 30% of emissions.

A binding agreement between the US, China, India, Russia, Japan on the EU on emissions would go a long way to addressing this problem.

That won’t be easy as they all have very different energy agendas.

Before Paris, 180 countries submitted pledges to cut or curb emissions, but, when all these plans were put together, experts believe they will, even if they are rigorously implemented, lead to a 2.7C rise – at least!

Also, there is no legal imperative to implement the plans.

Paris set out a long term global goal for zero emissions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  says that ‘net zero emissions’ must happen by 2070, in order to avoid ‘dangerous warming’.  But, it’s only a goal!

There is also a pledge to ‘take stock’ every 5 years to make sure that the plan to keep to 1.5C is still no track. But, only a pledge to ‘take stock’. The plan also included a clause which say that countries mainly responsible for warming – the US – will not be liable to pay financial claims from countries damaged by extreme weather.

There is a pledge to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 to finance developing countries so that they can adapt to climate change and transition to ‘clean energy’ – but this to is not legally binding.

All in all, Paris looks like a weak agreement, which holds no-one to account, and is largely aspirational in tone.

Fossil future

Coal, gas, petrol and diesel are fossil fuels. They contain high amounts of carbon and were formed from previously living organisms. They are cheap, readily available, and are very efficient at releasing usable energy when burned in combustion engines, or power plants.

Most experts believe that fossil fuels will still dominate, in terms of supplying our global needs by mid century and beyond. The Paris deal was heralded by some as the ‘end of coal’ but this is highly unlikely, and coal will continue to be burned, perhaps more than before.

Yet, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, or increasing rates – to meet increasing energy demands – we are on a road to nowhere. If fossil fuels are here to stay, how can we reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases which are released when they burn?

Is there a solution?

Well, one thing that can be done is to improve the fuel efficiency of our cars, and power plants which use fossil fuels, and this is happening.

Another more radical solution, but one which is now under serious consideration is referred to as carbon capture and storage  technology.

The idea here is to continue to burn fossil fuels, but that the carbon dioxide from this burning will be buried in a secure place underground. For example, there is talk of using gas fields, which have been exhausted, such as Kinsale, which is nearing its end, to store carbon dioxide gas.

2050?

The demand for electricity is set to soar in coming decades, as more than one billion people look to get plugged in. The energy mix will still be mainly fossil fuel based, so measures to improve energy efficiency will be crucial and technology will be developed to do that – in our homes, offices and in industry.

These energy efficiencies will only happen if governments fund the development of technology in the short term, because it will take time for their to be a pay off in any investment. So, industry won’t do it.

Coal is going to remain very important, as China and India develop.

Nuclear energy is expensive, and it is far more costly to build a nuclear power plant compared to a new coal or gas fired power plant. There are also costs of disposal of waste, and safety concerns, and there can be serious political opposition to new plants too.

Ireland has a real opportunity to develop its wind and wave resources, where we could – with the right investment – be a world leader. But, our grid is outdated, and other countries such as Denmark, have been investing in wind technology for far longer with greater success.

The most promising of the renewable technologies, generally speaking, is Solar and this will take off if supported initially by governments.They can be particularly useful to bring electricity to places now ‘off grid’.

The world, and individual countries, will have to realise that more expensive energy, and reduced growth might be required.

Ireland’s windy future

In 1935, the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power plant built near Limerick in the 1920s was supplying 80% of the country’s electricity.  Our electricity needs were far less at that time, of course, but we were still far more self sufficient in energy than we are today, as 60% of our energy is provided by natural gas, and 90% of our natural gas is imported.

Back in the 1930s, the vast majority of Ireland’s electricity was generated by harnessing the gravitational force of falling or flowing water. Ardnacrusha served us well for decades, but over time, the plant was unable to generate enough electricity to meet the growing demands of industry here, and modern homes, now mostly supplied with electricity.

These days our electricity needs have vastly increased, and the range of sources we get our electricity from has hugely diversified.

One of the good news stories for Ireland, is terms of its energy future, is the ready availability of lots of wind, particularly along the coastlines. As of 2015, 17.7% of Irish electricity was generated by wind power, making us second only to Denmark which has reached 30%.

The government has a target in its white paper to increase the energy consumption from ‘renewables’ to 16% from 7% currently. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland believes that electricity generated from wind will exceed domestic needs by 2030.

Ireland will then be in the happy position of becoming an electricity exporter, possible with a new electricity connector to the UK. It’s possible, if targets are reached, that Ireland could be providing 2.5% of the EU’s energy needs by 2050 through wind power generation.

Renewable mix

Ireland is also blessed with a valuable wave energy resource. One study found that the average wave power in Europe is highest near the west of Ireland.  The potential for utilising wave is huge. There is some 525 TWh of wave and tidal power in Irish waters. The total electricity requirement for the Republic of Ireland in 2006 was just 27.8 TWh!

Solar photovoltaic technology will be far more important, even in Ireland, where, as we know the sun doesn’t shine enough.

County councils around the country are building solar panels using PV technology on farmland. These ‘solar farms’ will provide electricity to the grid, and help to power new homes that will be built in coming years.

Bioenergy too will be far more developed here in coming decades. Plants are already being built in Dublin and Cork which will take food waste and harvest bio-gases to generate significant amounts of electricity.

Each bio waste plant can provide electricity for thousands of homes, and divert food waste which is going into landfill at the present time. Ireland will not move into nuclear. There are cheaper, better options and the political opposition and cost would seem to rule nuclear out here.

There are also, geologists believe, significant ‘hydrocarbon’ resources in the Irish offshore that lie underdiscovered due to the depths they are at. There is gas, we know this from Corrib, but many believe there is also oil, plenty of it, and as technology improves it will become easier and cheaper to prospect for this liquid gold.

So, all in all, Ireland’s energy future looks promising if we fully exploit our huge wind, wave and untapped hydrocarbon resources in our offshore.

That’s leaving aside the thorny question of potentially exploiting two large oil reserves trapped in rocks underneath Leitrim and the counties of southwest Ireland through ‘fracking’ technology.

 

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