Ireland exports wind energy, but coal, gas and peat relied on

Materials World magazine
25 Mar 2019

The emerald isle is choosing environmentally-friendly energy production methods, but peat remains a major source. 

The Republic of Ireland is ranked among the bottom European nations for action against climate change. In 2018 it came 48 out of 56 countries, according to the Climate Change Performance Index, in large part due to its stalling energy transition.

Ireland has been slow to embrace technologies for energy from renewable sources, and still relies heavily on imported coal and gas, as well as burning peat. As such, the country’s energy sector is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 20.4% of the country’s 61.5 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon a year, according to the Central Statistics Office.

But things are quickly beginning to change. The drastic reduction in the cost of wind power in particular – 66% down since 2009 – has led to a great shift in energy prospects. In 2017, Ireland became a net exporter of wind for the first time, and in January 2018 beat the figures for the previous year when Storm Eleanor swept in from the Atlantic, producing 3,618MW.

Investment in what is commonly called renewable energy has been growing, reinforcing the economic case for such technologies. But Ireland still has a long way to go. It is currently on track to be fined up to €600m by the EU for missing its 2020 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. So in its bid to lower carbon emissions, what is Ireland doing to support the transition to a greener energy system?

Imports and ageing plants

Energy security remains paramount for Ireland, as a nation dependant on energy imports. Currently, gas accounts for the biggest share of the energy mix at 36%, while coal contributes just over 10%.

‘Ireland imports 85% of its energy needs with an annual cost of €6.7bln. Peat burning for electricity generation at an industrial scale is ongoing and now there are plans to ship in fracked gas from the USA,’ Tipperary-based sustainability NGO, GROW Place Catalyst, Community Resilience Manager Davie Philip told Materials World.

Ireland’s biggest coal power plant, Moneypoint in County Claire, made national headlines in 2018 when owner-operator Electricity Supply Board (ESB) CEO Pat Fenlon confirmed it had a net worth of zero. The plant was built in 1985 and retrofitted in 2008 in order to cut nitrous oxide and sulphurous oxide emissions. Its three 305MW steam turbines have played a major role in Ireland’s energy mix for decades, and as recently as 2016 provided one fifth of the country’s generation capacity. Moneypoint uses 2Mt of coal a year, which is imported from Colombia.

However, the plant has suffered engineering trials and was closed for repairs in 2018 for several months. During this time, many highlighted Ireland’s seeming ability to function without Moneypoint and questioned its reopening. If the plant were to shut down now instead of at its scheduled closure in 2025, it could save a potential 30Mt of CO2 being released into the atmosphere, claimed the Irish Green Party.

A homegrown fossil fuel

For years, dug out of bogs in the centre of Ireland, Peat has been burnt as a source of fuel by semi state-owned energy company Bord na Móna. The company was set up in 1946 as a result of the Turf Development Act, which aimed to provide energy security and economic benefits for the recently formed Republic of Ireland. Peat is, therefore, culturally imporant and entwined with the nation’s independence.

However, peat is also an inefficient fuel source, contributing 3.5Mt of CO2 to Ireland’s emissions in 2016 while generating just 4.8% of energy, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority’s Energy-related CO2 emissions in Ireland 2005-2016 report. Then in November 2018, Bord na Móna announced plans to close 17 of its active peat bogs, with plans to shut the remaining 45 within the next seven years.

Bord na Móna CEO Tom Donnellan said, ‘Decarbonisation is the biggest challenge facing this planet. For Bord na Móna, it presents both a serious challenge and a national opportunity. By accelerating the move away from peat into renewable energy, resource recovery and new businesses, we are supporting national policy and seizing the opportunity presented by decarbonisation.’

The move is unsurprising in many ways, as the company has been increasing its green portfolio resources for years. In the 2017-2018 financial year, energy from renewable resources made up 60% of the company’s power production, and it has plans to raise this to 75% by 2020.

Clean energy stumbles

There have been a number of sticking points and stumbling blocks during the energy transition, notably USA-based Covanta’s waste-to-energy plant in Dublin port, which lost €48.8m during start-up in 2017. Operating as Dublin Waste to Energy Limited, Covanta’s end-of-year accounts showed the facility had turned over just under €40m.

During 2017, the plant at Poolbeg exported 151MW of electricity to the grid and burnt 278,700t of waste – below its maximum capacity of 600,000t of waste per annum. This slow start has led to criticism of the plant, including from local resident, former Minister for Environment and Green Irish MP John Gormley.

In the Irish Times, Gormley said the Poolbeg plant was ‘way too large for the area involved’. As such, he worried that waste imports would be necessary to feed the incinerator, and that it could ultimately derail recycling progress being made.

The challenges faced by Covanta, exacerbated by the ageing Moneypoint and closing peat bogs, could destabilise Irish energy security. This is concerning given the predicted increase in energy demand over the coming years. Usage is expected to grow by 15-36% over the next 10 years, driven largely by the increase in data centres on the island.

The advancement of other forms of low-carbon energy has also been held up, in part by cultural concerns. ‘There is a large anti-wind lobby in rural Ireland which has slowed down the development of large commercial wind projects,’ Philip said.

While wind may offer one of the biggest opportunities for Ireland, other green energies have also been slowed by a lack of support. ‘Some communities are actively resisting developments they feel they have no control over and see little benefit from,’ Philip said. ‘[There are] no incentives for communities or co-operatives to take advantage of solar. We are missing the potential of the rooftop revolution happening across Europe.’

Winds of change

Energy from renewable resources is increasing at pace in Ireland, however, the extent of the nation’s potential is beginning to be realised, particularly on the windy west coast.

‘There is a huge potential for a clean, secure energy future in an Ireland where communities – whether organised as co-operatives, voluntary associations or individual citizens – are active participants in energy planning, conservation, energy generation and energy distribution,’ said Philip. ‘Local communities could benefit from community renewable energy by keeping local money in local areas. It would also stimulate local investment and create local jobs by stabilising energy costs and supporting local businesses and people.’

And there are a number of projects already underway. In Country Kerry, for example, GE has built the world’s first commercial wind project with integrated power storage. The project, called Tullahennel, is made up of 13 37MW turbines, each equipped with lithium-ion batteries capable of storing 69kW per hour of electricity each, ensuring that even when the wind is not blowing they can contribute to the grid.

Ireland has huge wind power potential, but without battery and balancing technologies, it also provides a challenge for the transmission network. Ireland’s transmissions operator EirGrid spokesperson David Martin said, ‘The growth of wind generation presents a range of operational challenges for the power system. The technological characteristics of wind generation are different to traditional generation sources. Wind generation, which is dependent on weather conditions, is inherently variable.

‘This variability must be managed to ensure demand for electricity is met at all times. The challenge, therefore, is to manage a modern electricity grid with a significant amount of intermittent renewable generation.’

Elsewhere, community energy projects are prompting change on a more modest scale, with small wind and solar projects, along with microgrids being installed around the country. ‘In Tipperary there is an initiative around community production and consumption of renewables, looking at how citizens can generate as well as consume locally produced renewable energy,’ said Philip. ‘The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has a wide network of sustainable energy communities with a strong focus on the improved performance of homes.’

Growing investment and support

Technological advancement is being met by increased investment as Ireland strives to meet its climate and energy goals. ‘We are aiming for 40% of electricity to come from renewable sources, primarily wind energy, by 2020,’ said Martin. ‘To date, there has been tremendous success, with renewable energy accounting for approximately 30% of electricity consumption in 2018.’

Recent moves by the government are supporting these goals, such as the Ireland 2040 environment plan introduced in 2018, which allocated €22bln to be spent on environmental projects over the next decade. Sceptics warn that such decisions, however, are too little too late and larger changes, like an increase to the carbon tax, are needed.

‘The challenges Ireland faces are the same as other countries, however, we have lacked leadership on the issue of climate and were slow to incentivise renewable energy through a feed in tariff,’ said Philip.

A number of incentives were launched offering investment into budding low-carbon projects. These include a grant, recently launched by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland as part of its National Energy Research Development and Demonstration Funding programme. The grant will share €4m (£3.5m) between universities, businesses and public sector bodies to develop innovative energy technologies.

Minister for Commissions, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton, said, ‘I am determined to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change. Putting Ireland’s energy use on a sustainable path is key to realising that ambition. We, as government, must invest in research to help drive discovery of the new technologies and solutions required for Ireland’s low-carbon energy transition.’

A key part of this green approach was the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, which was passed in July 2018 with all-party support in the lower house. It will see the state’s national investment fund sell off its investments in oil, gas, coal and peat in the next five years.

Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan said, ‘The passage of this bill sends a clear message – that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end. Investing in fossil fuels is unsustainable from an environmental point of view. It is becoming increasingly clear to people that it is also unsustainable from a business point of view, and an economic point of view.’