Brian Motherway, CEO of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland believes that by making the right choices Ireland will have a more sustainable and secure energy future, whilst grasping an economic opportunity.
In July I had the pleasure of accompanying Energy Minister Alex White to see the achievements of the Aran Islands energy co-operative. The islanders have a proud tradition of determination, self-sufficiency and environmental responsibility. And they are conscious of how an unsustainable energy system undermines these values. All of their energy comes from elsewhere, and if the boats don’t sail then the fuel runs out.
So they have acted, with enthusiasm and passion. An energy co-operative is in place to engage the whole community. An ambitious building upgrade programme has already greatly improved many people’s comfort, and trials of alternative heating technologies and electric vehicles have taken place. They are now exploring the options for wind energy and even battery storage. Our analysis suggests that a mixture of efficiency, electrification and renewables sets them on a path to complete energy independence and sustainability.
The Aran Islanders could see their energy vulnerability more than most of us, but in fact we all have the same dependence. Ireland imports almost 90% of all its energy, seeing huge amounts of money leave our shores to buy fossil fuels from other states. We must address this urgently.
Our first act is always to reduce the amount of energy we use, and Ireland can be pleased with its progress in recent years. Together we are all spending €700 million less every year because of improvements in efficiency in our homes and workplaces. However, much more is possible, diverting money, previously sent abroad to buy fossil fuels, into upgrades and investments with significant local employment benefits.
We have also seen some solid gains in renewable energy. Our use of our own renewable energy sources has grown 400% since 1990, mostly biomass and wind. This is reducing our imports of fossil fuels by over €400m every year. We are half way to our binding EU 2020 targets for renewable electricity, renewable heat and renewable transport. This is a good start, but we have just five short years to deliver the second half.
Ireland has an opportunity to gain hugely from a move away from imported fossil fuels and towards exploiting its own, rich, clean resources. We have made progress, but we need to do much more. And many issues have become more controversial and of concern to communities. How do we build on what we have learned to make the right choices for Ireland?
Firstly, we must make the right choices for Ireland, playing to our strengths. What options bring maximum local benefits? Those that use our own resources that build local supply chains and support local jobs. It also means aligning energy and enterprise policies, maximising the economic opportunities for Ireland.
In deciding our energy future, we have the best stock of evidence and experience we have ever had, and this must inform the debate. But we still will have hard decisions to make, there are no magic solutions and every available path has pros and cons. The process must be right, and delivery must be right too. The industry must be exemplary in its engagement, its planning, and its treatment of communities. It’s clear that this hasn’t always happened in the past. Ireland’s renewable energy model needs to be more local, inclusive and shared.
We face urgent energy issues that cannot be ignored, and we have a range of solutions available to us, all rooted in our own ingenuity, entrepreneurship and our rich clean energy resources. Done right, our energy system can quickly become massively more sustainable to the benefit of all.