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30th October 2014
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30th October 2014

Renewable electricity is not enough

thumb-large-87 Brian Ó Gallachóir explains why renewable transport and heat are needed to fulfil Ireland’s energy targets and suggests how policy changes can increase their uptake.

Ireland has an ambitious mandatory target for renewable energy arising from the EU Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28/EC). By 2020, we must increase the renewable energy contribution of overall energy use to at least 16 per cent. In 2013, renewable energy in Ireland represented 7 per cent of energy use, indicating the scale of the challenge i.e. we need to more than double our renewable energy share in seven years.

The focus of policy discourse, however, has been limited to renewable electricity with renewable heat and renewable transport being largely ignored. Given that electricity represents less than one-fifth of our energy use, this means that without an urgent and significant shift in focus towards renewable heat and transport, we are very unlikely to meet this mandatory target. In addition, energy efficiency has a key role in reducing the size of our energy use and hence contributing to increasing the share of renewable energy.

According to the Renewable Energy Directive, Ireland is required to achieve a minimum share of 16 per cent of overall energy use (16 per cent RES) by 2020. Within the Renewable Energy Directive, there is a significant range of targets across the member states, ranging from 10 per cent for Malta to 49 per cent per cent for Sweden. These targets depend on:

• existing renewable energy deployment (e.g. Malta, Ireland and Sweden had renewable energy shares of 0 per cent, 3 per cent and 40 per cent respectively in 2005);

• the available renewable energy resources;

• the capacity to harness these resources; and

• the level of national ambition for the period to 2020 that was expressed in 2008-2009 when the Directive was being developed.

In addition, each member state has a mandatory target to achieve a minimum of 10 per cent of road and rail transport energy from renewable sources (10 per cent RES-T). There are specific limitations on the use of biofuels with respect to meeting this target (and equally to contribute to each member state’s overall RES target) i.e. biofuels can only be counted if they meet a number of sustainability criteria that become more stringent as we approach 2020.

FREE IMAGE-NO REPRO FEE. Brian Ó Gallachoir, Civil & Environmental Engineering, UCC. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC. In addition, weightings are used to limit the use of first generation biofuels (due to competition with food production), to increase the use of biofuels from waste and from second and third generation biofuels, and to encourage the penetration of electric vehicles (and the increased share of renewable energy in electricity to charge them).

To measure the contribution of these favoured biofuels towards the 10 per cent RES-T target, their energy contribution is increased by a weighting of two. The renewable electricity portion of the electricity used to charge electric vehicles was also increased, by a weighting of 2.5. It is important to note that these weightings apply to the RES-T target only and not to the overall RES target.

It is up to each member state to determine how they will meet their overall renewable energy target, in particular how much will be delivered by renewable electricity, by renewable heat and by renewable transport. The EU Renewable Energy Directive does require each member state to produce a National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP) to demonstrate how it will meet its overall target and to specify the annual pathway envisaged.

Ireland’s NREAP establishes that the 16 per cent RES target in 2020 will be delivered by achieving three modal targets, namely a 40 per cent renewable share of electricity use (40 per cent RES-E), a 12 per cent renewable share of renewable heat (12 per cent RES-H) and a 10 per cent renewable share of transport energy (10 per cent RES-T).

While all of these modal targets pose significant challenges, the primary focus has been on achieving the 40 per cent RES-E target, which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “Ireland’s renewable energy target” or as being “mandatory” in the context of the EU Renewable Energy Directive.

Our mandatory EU targets are to achieve a 16 per cent renewable energy share of overall energy by 2020 and to achieve a 10 per cent renewable share of road and rail transport by 2020. The 40 per cent RES-E target represents one element by which Ireland has decided to achieve the mandatory EU Directive target.

image47 Progress to date

The development of renewable energy in Ireland since 1990 is illustrated in Figure 1, where the share of energy use is shown, quantified as per the Renewable Energy Directive definition. During the 1990s, Ireland’s renewable energy contribution remained low (approximately 2 per cent), dominated by biomass use and hydro-power. This was largely due to the use of waste wood for heat in the wood processing industry and due to the roll-out of hydro power in Ireland in the 1950s as part of the rural electrification programme.

It is also evident from Figure 1 that in the period since 2003, there was a significant growth in wind energy that has made a key contribution to the RES growth to

7 per cent. This represents a significant policy success story that was driven by establishing a clear target, by achieving collective buy-in to a strategy that was formulated with key stakeholders and through continuous adjustments as required of market support measures, grid connection policy and planning process.

It is less evident from Figure 1 that biomass has also grown (although clearly not as significantly as wind energy) in this period, due to an increase in biomass for heating but also more recently to the growth in biofuels in transport, the latter also stimulated by policy support, most notably the Biofuels Obligation Scheme.

The contribution of the different modal shares of renewable energy (i.e. in electricity, heat and transport energy) to the overall RES share of 7 per cent is shown in the table below. The significant growth in wind energy has resulted in renewable electricity now representing 21 per cent of Ireland’s electricity use and 4 per cent of overall energy use.

Renewable heat (largely bioenergy in the form of wood) represents 5 per cent of Ireland’s thermal energy needs and 2 per cent of overall energy use. Renewable transport energy in 2013 (comprising biofuels from 35 countries with almost 50 per cent from used cooking oil) accounted for 4 per cent RES-T but contributed just 1 per cent to overall RES, due to the weightings that apply for the contribution to RES-T which do not apply when calculating overall RES.

Contributions in 2013
Mode Share of RES
21% RES-E 4%
5% RES-H 2%
4% RES-T 1%
Total 7%

The renewable energy contribution by mode is more clearly illustrated in Figure 2. The key issues here are that electricity represents less than one-fifth of our energy use while transport and heat each represent nearly two-fifths. This explains why the 5 per cent RES-H share equates to 2 per cent RES, while 21 per cent RES-E equates to just 4 per cent RES.

image48 Looking ahead

Based on a very simplified extrapolation forward to 2020, we can use the modal contribution table to explore what might happen if we achieve the 40 per cent RES-E target but make no further progress in RES-H and RES-T. This is clearly crude but usefully illustrates the problem associated with a narrow focus on RES-E. Assuming no changes other than increasing RES-E, this suggests RES-E will contribute 7 per cent RES, which in addition to the 1 per cent RES from renewable transport and the 2 per cent RES from renewable heat means that Ireland achieves a 10 per cent renewable share of energy use by 2020.

This remains that a significant distance from the target of 16 per cent. In fact, to achieve the 16 per cent RES target by focussing solely on increasing RES-E would require RES-E to grow to 80 per cent by 2020 (which is not technically or economically feasible in this timeframe). It is clear from the recent rate of wind deployment and from the growing opposition to wind energy deployment (and complementary electricity infrastructure development) that achieving the 40 per cent RES-E by 2020 represents a significant challenge, without considering moving beyond 40 per cent.

Transport and heat

Clearly, renewable electricity is not enough and we require an urgent and considerable shift in focus towards renewable heat and transport for Ireland to meet the 16 per cent RES target by 2020. There are a number of challenges associated with increasing renewable heat and transport but there are also underexplored options and a range of potential solutions (including biogas from grass as a transport fuel for freight and large scale biomass heating for industry and the services sector).

The most significant obstacle to progress is the lack of attention given to renewable heat and transport. Public policy discourse on renewable energy is primarily limited to a focus on renewable electricity. This makes it increasingly difficult to address the challenges to renewable heat and transport that are by no means new but which have not received adequate attention.

Gemeinde begrüßt E-Flitzer: Puffer für den Öko-Strom / A community welcomes E-cars - Buffers for ecofriendly power Regarding renewable transport energy, the biofuels obligation scheme is successfully increasing the share of renewable transport energy but this is limited is three ways that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the scheme has increased the levels of blended biofuels in the petrol and diesel that we consume with the share (of road transport fuels) by volume increasing to 6 per cent in 2013. However, this translates into a lower actual share due to the weightings applied to certain biofuels (e.g. biofuels waste is counted twice), thus the biofuels share of road transport by volume reached 4 per cent in 2013.

Considering that the share is lower in energy terms (compared with volume) due to the differences in calorific values between biofuels and petroleum products – and when calculating the RES share, all transport energy is considered – the 4 per cent share by volume achieved in 2013 reduces to approximately 1 per cent of overall energy use from biofuels.

Secondly, there are limits to the extent to which blending may occur before it may impact on standard car warranties. In the case of diesel engines, ASTM International develops specifications for conventional diesel fuel (ASTM D975). These specifications allow for biodiesel concentrations of up to 5 per cent (B5). Regarding petrol engines, E10 is a low level blend composed of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent gasoline. It is classified as “substantially similar” to gasoline by the US Environmental Protection Agency and is legal for use in any gasoline-powered vehicle. This still does allow for a significant increase in biofuel penetration (petrol to 10 per cent and diesel to 5 per cent), although the dieselisation of the fleet will impact here as a limiting factor.

Thirdly, the 10 per cent target for electric vehicles share of the vehicle fleet requires over 200,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by 2020, compared with the current numbers of less than 500. There are two issues with this. We are clearly not on track to achieve a 10 per cent electric vehicle share by 2020 and even if we did, the impact on the RES target would be small with the 10 per cent cohort of electric vehicles contributing less than 1 per cent RES.


There are, however, technology options for renewable energy in transport that are available in addition to increasing the blending of biofuels. While electric vehicles have had a significant focus of policy debate (including a target for 2020, grant support, reduced tax and roll-out of infrastructure), the role of compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles have received less attention. Energy Cork, an industry lead cluster in Cork, has prioritised CNG vehicles for freight and public transport in conjunction with supporting the upgrading of biogas to biomethane for injection into the gas network. This builds on collaborative work between Bord Gáis who are rolling out CNG refuelling facilities, University College Cork which is researching biomethane, Cork City Council and customers (including Bus Éireann and Celtic Linen) which have used CNG vehicles.

Regarding renewable heat there are also challenges to be overcome, including the following:

• changes in the fuels used for heat supply generally require the consumer to directly engage compared with changes in fuels used for electricity supply or indeed biofuel blending (largely removed from consumers as they happen long before the point of purchase and use);

• policies are required across the whole renewable heating chain to ensure adequate supply is correctly timed to coincide with market uptake; and

• there is no clear market mechanism in Ireland to increase the share of renewable heat, as there is for renewable electricity (the Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff) and for renewable transport (the Biofuels Obligation Scheme and the grant support for electric vehicles).

There has been support for biomass CHP plants but no distinct renewable heat market support since the Greener Homes Scheme and the REHeat schemes were ceased in 2011. Achieving the renewable heat target by 2020 requires:

1. a clear target (in place since the 2007 government white paper i.e. 12 per cent RES-H by 2020);

2. a strategy that has buy in from key national stakeholders (at the time of writing, the awaited national bioenergy strategy has not yet been published);

3. an action plan to deliver the strategy (there is a Bioenergy Action Plan in place that was published in 2007 but delivery has been piecemeal and has not resulted in a significant increase in renewable heat); and

4. a rigorous monitoring process to assess whether progress is being made and that adjustments are made as necessary to ensure the pathway towards the 2020 target is delivered on.

In summary, meeting Ireland’s mandatory 16 per cent renewable share of energy use is ambitious and challenging. The dominant focus of discourse and policy needs to shift away from renewable electricity to renewable transport and renewable heat. There are technology options available. What’s needed is a clear strategy and action plan with buy-in from key stakeholders that builds on the successful approach followed for renewable electricity.

Brian Ó Gallachóir is a senior lecturer in energy engineering and principal investigator in energy policy and modelling at University College Cork. Data sourced from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s Energy Policy Statistical Support Unit.