Addressing the annual Energy Ireland conference, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Alex White TD sets out the future of Irish energy policy.
The transition to a low carbon future lies at the heart of Government energy policy, says Minister Alex White. It reflects “the paradigm shift” that energy systems across the world are currently undergoing. The Labour TD says that it is a pivotal year for energy policy at national, EU and international levels.
The Department for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is finalising an Energy White Paper to serve Ireland’s next generation. Most energy commentators, White says, recognise that there is “no silver bullet” to solve the complex challenges faced when developing policy, but instead “a multiplicity of approaches” will be essential in order to progress to a low carbon future. He warns: “The severity of the adverse impacts of extreme climate change events and their abatement is the greatest challenge the world faces at this time.
“It is essential that we take the necessary abatement and mitigation measures now. Lack of action or the postponement of difficult decisions are no longer options.”
The previous White Paper ‘Delivering a Sustainable Energy Future for Ireland’ published in 2007 was “the first comprehensive Irish energy policy document in several decades.”
Providing policy certainty and a cohesive vision for Irish energy markets up to 2020, the Minister says that it underpinned some very significant achievements over the past eight years.
Since publication, the Irish, EU and international energy landscapes have undergone “profound change” as new technologies have unlocked new sources of fossil fuels, low carbon alternatives and clean technologies. The implementation of the 2007 commitments will continue, where appropriate, over the period of the new White Paper.
Due for publication the autumn, it is being written against the backdrop of the energy trilemma, which is the provision of affordable, secure and sustainable energy. Finding the right balance is “critical,” highlights White. He says that it will build on the work undertaken since then and set out how Ireland will make the necessary transition to a low carbon future. “It will guide and inform our collective approach and actions to 2030, with a view to 2050.”
However, the dynamic nature of the global energy market presents a lot of uncertainty. This is evidenced by:
• the collapse of oil prices;
• the increased and then decreasing use of hydraulic fracturing in the US;
• cheap exports of US coal;
• increasing geopolitical instability;
• the imperative to secure agreement on climate change mitigation and abatement measures at the Conference of the Parties in Paris later this year.
“Against this constantly shifting energy landscape, it is critical that we maintain stability in our energy policy, in tandem with meeting our responsibility to address climate change.”
Energy security is essential to Ireland, White highlights. It is one of the key pillars of the EU’s energy policy and is an important dimension of the EU’s Energy Union initiative. “We are an inadequately interconnected peripherally located country that is heavily dependent of fossil fuel imports.”
Because of this, Ireland is hugely vulnerable to price shocks and possible supply disruptions. He says that European electricity market integration and increased interconnection are essential to achieve security of supply and compliance with EU obligations.
“Greater interconnection would be welcome but our options are limited and the cost dimension has to be carefully considered. New items on the EU agenda include a forthcoming LNG and storage strategy, which is welcome.”
But he also points out that the costs of integration must not outweigh the benefits.
Fossil fuel imports will continue to play an important role in Ireland’s consumption especially in the transport and heat sectors. White believes it is important to recognise this. Oil represented 57 per cent of total final energy consumption in Ireland in 2013.
It underpins the transport sector and is relied on heavily for home heating. “While we unquestionably need to move to a lower carbon economy, oil will continue to remain an extremely important fuel to the Irish economy and society in the medium-term. “As such, oil resilience and investment in oil infrastructure is critical,” he says.
“It is too early to make a firm decision about the timing of the introduction of a policy on the appropriate role for coal in the electricity generation mix,” he continues. “Any decision will need to take account of the implications for fuel mix, emissions and energy security.”
White notes that “we are standing at a climate change crossroads.” 2015 is a most important year for decisions for energy, climate change and sustainable development,” he says, before adding that there are no less than three critical discussions taking place at UN level. Ireland was the co-chair of recent discussions concerned with new sustainable development goals.
Ireland’s vision is to transform the country’s energy production and consumption patterns so that, by 2050, the system will be largely decarbonised, explains White.
However, he points out that national circumstances are an important factor in the measures developed to mitigate the effects of climate change. These include Ireland’s geographical peripherality and inadequate interconnection, transportation costs and logistics, and an economy where agriculture also plays a large role.
“Ireland has specific vulnerabilities,” he says. These include threats to coastal assets due to rising sea levels, increased and more intense precipitation with consequent flooding risks, and changes in storm tracks. “In combination, these will result in social and economic costs, as well as the loss of ecologically and culturally significant sites.”
The Minister sees Ireland’s citizens as being “at the heart of energy policy. I want citizens – as well as industry – to have a role in Ireland’s transition to a low carbon future.”
“Changing our lifestyles, behaviour and culture are inextricably linked to our capacity to reduce our carbon footprint,” he continues.
“Social acceptance of measures necessary to limit greenhouse gas emissions plays a central role in how we can transform our energy landscape.”
He adds: “In particular, Ireland needs to invest to find solutions tailored to our own particular set of circumstances and these solutions can also provide global opportunities.”
One of the key barriers to energy efficiency, he highlights, is that customers respond differently to policy interventions based on their knowledge, level of engagement and financial constraints. “Even then, the timing of their decisions frequently plays a key role. This means that any future policy measures must be consumer focused and take account of this real world decision cycle.”
White describes the new paper as “a critical instrument of navigation” towards the energy transition that Ireland must make. He concludes that everyone has a responsibility and role to play in this transition. “There are many challenges ahead as we learn to adapt to a low carbon future and to take the measures necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change, including changing our lifestyles and behaviour.
“The transition to a system based on clean technologies will be a process, not an event.” The policies adopted in the short, medium and long term, will determine the future of the generations to come.