As the world goes through an energy revolution, Ireland has a significant success story that is worth telling, according to Brian Motherway. The Chief Executive of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is also confident that the island can double its use of renewable energy by 2020, turning it into a net exporter with a secure domestic supply.
“From a few years ago, when it was a very small sector and a lot of scepticism about whether it could ever make a contribution, there are many days now where we’re getting half of our electricity from wind,” he comments.
“On average, about a fifth of our annual electricity usage is from renewables. That’s one of the highest in the world and we’re doing that in a way that’s saving us hundreds of millions of euros from gas imports and reducing our carbon emissions by millions of tonnes. Importantly it’s not adding to consumer prices.”
It is clear that Ireland needs to “get out” of import dependence, carbon intensity and price volatility – all associated with fossil fuels. Ireland is currently exposed to the risks of importing fuel and technology but the low carbon transition suddenly turns this into an opportunity “because the kind of solutions required to make energy more sustainable happen to suit Ireland.”
Motherway elaborates: “First of all, we’ve one of the best renewable resources on the planet. We’re already starting to exploit it to a significant degree. Secondly, it’s all about smart technologies, control systems and ICT-type interventions. And thirdly, the country that wins this race is the country that can adapt and that can show some flexibility in its regulation and its policy, and can get things done on the ground.” As a small and agile country, Ireland can “at least in theory” win that race.
Ireland’s “great success story” in renewable energy is one that attracts international interest. Observers want to know how a small country can integrate that level of wind into a “relatively isolated” grid system with the help of smart control technology and “clever policy interventions”.
The level of financial support for wind is among the lowest in the world “and yet we have this very high penetration.” He sees “no problem in doubling the sector by the end of the decade”. The resource and the pipeline of projects is already in place, and the sector offers a “tremendous” growth opportunity.
Motherway continues: “The starting point here is we’ve got a great resource. If you build a wind farm in Ireland, it will generate more electricity and therefore more money than in most parts of the world.”
Ireland will become an interesting place for even relatively conservative sources of money such as pension funds which see that “wind actually works in Ireland” – again due to the resource and the track record in building infrastructure.
“That’s where success in our planning and our regulation and our policy has all come together, to actually show that it can get done,” he remarks. “That’s been the work of a decade.” The SEAI was involved in early market-building, early demonstration and networking projects but those would not have been possible without grid build, clever policy, good regulation and the leadership of the utilities.
International attention has come over the last few years when wind farms have been built (and have started operating) on a large scale.
“We need to make sure we don’t waste that,” he adds. “We need to understand that we have something here that can bring more benefits to the people of Ireland economically and in terms of employment and in terms of environmental protection.”
Motherway also emphasises that Ireland must keep its eye on the ultimate prize which, in his words, is: “Wind is good for Ireland, we have a comparative advantage in it and it can bring benefits.”
“Key to the success is having political and regulatory alignment in the right direction,” he says. “It’s more complex than saying: ‘You pass one law and everything is fixed.’ You have to have a clear sense that you want certain things to happen – if they meet the right criteria of planning and social acceptability.”
The next step is then getting people together and solving problems relatively quickly, which is comparatively easier in a small country. However, this progress cannot be taken for granted.
“The risk now is that suddenly we forget that wind is a very good thing for Ireland and we lose control of the debate,” he warns. “We always need to start from the point that wind is good, it’s working well in Ireland”
Each development proposal “absolutely” must go through transparent processes for planning, design, environmental assessment and local debate, but in the context that, done right, wind is a good thing for Ireland.
Quality of debate
Motherway senses two unhealthy extremes in the overall policy debate. On one side, some ardent supporters of renewables effectively say: “Wind is good in every circumstance and there should never be an objection and there’s never a legitimate reason to oppose it.” The strongest sceptics, on the other hand, claim: “Wind just doesn’t work, presenting it as some kind of conspiracy-type theory model where apparently it’s all a scam.”
A contentious debate also surrounds the concept of exporting energy. The scale of projects and their impact on the landscape has coalesced concern about the idea but he wants people to wait for the facts to be become clear before reaching conclusions.
“It’s a pity if we end up having these debates that are based on speculation on both sides because it’s important to remember that we’re still at the very early stages of the export project,” he states.
“The starting point is that we have a natural resource that somebody else wants to buy, and that’s surely a good thing. That’s the basis of trade, and the basis of any strong economy, and I am strongly supportive of that mission – if we can achieve it.”
Motherway accepts that getting the export process right will take time. At this point, the UK and Ireland are still writing the inter-governmental agreement. That will be followed by environmental assessment and the drafting of rules for project assessment and selection.
“All of that has to happen before we go into the specifics of any one project,” he explains. “The opportunity for debate and the opportunity for people to express their opinion will be manifold over the next couple of years.
“It’s a pity if people are activated now by things that may or may not be a reality. We need – between the developers, government and the local communities – to reach a healthier stage of debate where we’re discussing real issues and doing it properly.”
While 18 per cent of electricity came from renewable sources in 2011, renewables only provided 4.8 per cent of heat and 3.6 per cent of transport.
“Bioenergy has different issues but also different benefits, particularly in the context of agriculture and of dealing with waste,” Motherway comments. “It tends to be much more demand-side driven, much more dispersed and less centrally regulated – and that makes policy interventions harder.”
While many people see the value in exploiting land, waste and natural resources in generating heat, the devil is in the detail i.e. how to roll this out on an economic and technologically sound basis.
The sector ranges from woodchip boilers in the home to co-firing at Edenderry power station in the Midlands. Motherway has found that, in Ireland and elsewhere, developing renewable heat is often a question of local circumstances and building a supply chain.
There is uncertainty around whether the user of the fuel will move first and build a power plant (without an initial fuel supply) or whether the farmers and foresters will move first and commit to several years of growing (without knowing if they will have customers). Government therefore has a role in building confidence, working with early adopters and providing financial support to technologies.
“That’s an area that we need to continue to give attention to because it brings a lot of wider benefits,” he says. “Like all of the sustainable energy mission, it’s about reducing our use of imported fossil fuels.”
Motherway points to a success story from Kerry County Council in Tralee. The council owned a number of housing estates containing old homes which weren’t very energy efficient. “People in the homes were struggling to keep them warm while spending a lot of money,” he says. “Most importantly, all of that money was not just leaving Kerry but leaving Ireland because it was buying oil and gas from other countries.”
With support from SEAI, Kerry County Council insulated the homes “to a very high degree” and also built a biomass district heating network. “Now, all of those homes are much easier to keep warm and comfortable,” he explains. “The occupants are spending a fraction of what they used to spend on their energy bills but, most importantly, all of that money is staying within a few kilometres of Tralee.”
The wood for the district heating system is bought from local foresters: “It’s a perfect rounded story of what sustainable energy looks like in terms of improving comfort and well-being in the home and reducing everyone’s costs but also keeping money in the local economy.”
It is easy to forget that transport accounts for 40 per cent of Irish energy consumption – more than any other sector. Transport remains almost entirely dependent on imported oil “and that’s not sustainable by any definition of the word.”
Mortherway’s preference is to bring forward a “significant degree” of electrification. Biofuels will have a role to play but Ireland’s natural advantages are in generating clean electricity and in the country’s relatively compact scale. Electric vehicle manufacturers are very interested in Ireland’s ability to become an early mover, through the right regulation and infrastructure.
“I’m firmly convinced that we will see major growth in electric vehicles on the roads of Ireland in the coming years,” he states. “I see that this as a growing international movement in terms of the car manufacturers, and the actions of utilities and of governments.”
However, Ireland should not neglect the short-term opportunity of greater efficiency in transport. Substantial energy, financial and environmental savings can be achieved relatively quickly through the deployment of new technologies, telematics and the simple act of driver training and energy monitoring.
Going offshore is, for him, the natural next step for Irish renewable energy, following on from the success of onshore wind. He explains: “There’s no doubt that, in the decades to come, we will be harvesting significant amounts of clean energy from the waters around Ireland, particularly off the west coast where there’s a huge amount of energy in the wind and in the waves.”
While many of the technologies are not yet mature, Ireland has to act now to establish the sector and make sure that Irish technologies and Irish jobs drive the exploitation of the resource.
“A lot of the companies are faced with challenges in terms of generating revenue when their technologies won’t be mature for maybe a decade,” Motherway adds. “We need scale. We need investors with long time horizons and we need the right kind of clever interventions that allow us to – at the right pace – develop our sector here while acknowledging that the revenue and the jobs and the energy itself won’t start to flow for some time yet.”
SEAI’s analysis shows that energy efficiency and renewable energy are already reducing the import bill for fossil fuels by €1 billion per year. This could be €2 billion by the end of the decade. Doubling the renewable sector is “wholly achievable” as long as Ireland keeps its eye on the ball
Most of the challenges are not technological. The development of the basic technology “has all been done” but the country needs “more of it and more quickly.”
“We just need to focus on where we have our comparative advantage, what we’re good at, look at what we’ve already achieved (which is very substantial in many areas) and accelerate.”
Irish companies that can develop a new energy efficiency technology will find a market “not just in Ireland but globally.” The enablers – ICT, software, remote communication devices and control monitoring – are all well-established in Ireland.
Motherway says: “This is an opportunity for Ireland to build a new energy technology sector with a lot of export potential, and I certainly meet a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of small and large companies who have realised that energy efficiency and renewable technologies are well-monetised and there’s a growing demand for them.”