Urgent action needed if 2030 energy targets are to be met

15 Aug 2022

Just over three years ago the Oireachtas voted unanimously to declare that Ireland was in the middle of a climate and biodiversity emergency, writes Wind Energy Ireland CEO Noel Cunniffe for the Sunday Independent.

During the debate speaker after speaker warned of the growing threat posed to our country and our way of life from climate change. And many took the opportunity to remind their colleagues that declaring an emergency means absolutely nothing if there is no action to back it up.

It would be wrong to claim there has been no progress. We are building new renewable energy projects, a planning framework for offshore wind energy is finally in place, solar power has started to connect to the grid for the first time.

But, there is clear evidence that it is too little, and it may soon be too late and Irish families are paying the price in their electricity bills.

Wind energy provided 34 per cent of Ireland’s electricity up to the end of July. Every time a wind turbine generates power it is pushing expensive imported fossil fuels off the system and lowering wholesale electricity prices.

Cheaper power

The faster we can build and connect renewable energy onto the electricity system the more secure we make Ireland’s energy supply, the more money we can put back in the pockets of consumers and the lower we can make our carbon emissions. More wind means cheaper power.

But we are not moving fast enough.

Fixing this is possible but it requires us first to be honest about the scale of the problem. This is not about changing a planning regulation or making some minor amendments in how we expand our grid capacity.

Hitting our 2030 targets, cutting our carbon emissions by 51 per cent, is still – just about – possible but if it is to be done it must become a national mission, driven from the very highest levels of government but reaching into every community and home right across Ireland.

The full resources of the State must be brought to bear with determination and constancy. We must recognise the threat we face from climate change is far greater than the one we faced from Covid, and we must respond accordingly.  With the same urgency, with a collective will to make what seems impossible, possible.

And it has never been more urgent to act. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has seen spiralling gas and electricity prices across Europe. This means real hardship for families in Ireland and across the continent who struggle to pay bills that, ultimately, end up funding Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Defending Europe

Ireland can play a critical role in defending Europe. Not with guns or tanks, but with wind turbines and solar panels. Green hydrogen from Cork and electricity generated in Donegal can help replace natural gas in Europe’s power supply.

The task before us – very broadly – breaks down into two key questions.

First, what can we do to build more wind farms – onshore and offshore – more solar farms and more energy storage projects as quickly as possible? This is about speed. Ireland’s renewable energy industry knows what to do. We have the expertise and the skills. We have the investment. We are ready and waiting.

But we cannot build these projects if we cannot get them through the planning system, if we cannot navigate the process to connect them to the electricity grid and then must wait for an opportunity, which comes every year or two, to win a contract to be built.

At every single step of this process, we are taking too long. Projects languish for years in a planning system that is fundamentally not up to the job. Connecting to the grid is slow and expensive.

Everything needs to change. The entire system of how we develop renewable energy in Ireland, from start to finish, needs to be completely redesigned. And if we can achieve all of that, we will still fail, because we also need to answer the second key question.

How can we build an electricity grid in Ireland that will provide a secure supply of clean energy to every household and business on the island?

Grid not fit for purose

Again, we must start with honesty. Our electricity grid is not fit for purpose. It is a grid designed for a fossil fuel economy in the late 20th century. Tinkering at the edges or trying to get away with doing the minimum will lead to inevitable failure. Pretending otherwise is delusion.

We need to build critically needed new grid infrastructure like the North-South Interconnector and we must invest to ensure that the system can, when the wind and solar is available, operate with 100 per cent renewables.

Every single part of EirGrid’s Shaping Our Electricity Future strategy needs to be delivered and we need to be honest in being clear that anyone undermining this strategy is – consciously or otherwise – risking our country’s energy security and our economic future.

But that strategy is not enough. It must be built on, integrating new technologies, demand flexibility and zero-carbon solutions. We need more power lines and underground cables to get power from the wind farms and solar farms which will generate it to the homes, farms and businesses that will need it.

We need all of this, and more, because perhaps our greatest need is for leaders and communicators to share this vision with us, to honestly and simply explain to the Irish people the challenges we face and to empower them too to act, to be part of building an energy-independent Ireland at the heart of an energy-secure Europe.

It is time for all of us to step up.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on 14 August.