How we use our energy has changed forever - but fracking is not on agenda
Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30
This week, for the first time, an Irish government has adopted a policy for the eventual elimination of fossil fuels from our energy system. In keeping with the historic Paris climate change agreement, which was widely welcomed last weekend, we said that we would reduce Ireland's energy-related carbon emissions by between 80pc and 95pc by 2050, compared with 1990 levels.
High-carbon fuels like peat and coal will be replaced by lower-carbon or renewable alternatives in the short to medium term, before fossil fuels are largely replaced by renewable energy sources by 2050. And greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector will fall to zero or below by 2100 at the latest.
For some, the size of this ambition may be hard to grasp. But the energy White Paper I have published heralds a complete change in the way that we generate, transmit, store, conserve and use energy.
Others, understandably, are impatient for change.
But we cannot switch to a carbon-free energy system overnight. If we did, the lights would go out, the heating wouldn't come on, and the cars, buses and trains would stop running.
This is no different to any ambitious State programme or transformation. The US government didn't announce, on July 19, 1969, that it would put a man on the moon the next day.
That feat was the result of decades of scientific, technological, industrial and political effort.
Similarly, the White Paper recognises that the transition to a carbon-free energy system has to be planned and implemented, with determination, over a number of years and decades.
The recent capital plan increased funding for energy efficiency and the development of renewables, and the White Paper recognises that we will have to commit even more investment over the coming years.
In that context, we have set out concrete commitments to improve domestic energy-efficiency grant schemes and develop affordable financing options for energy efficiency upgrades.
We are also accelerating and diversifying our programme of renewable energy generation.
A new support scheme for the development of renewable energy technologies will be introduced next year, along with a renewable heat incentive scheme, and policy frameworks for combined heat and power projects and district heating schemes.
These are tangible policies to move us along the road to decarbonisation.
It is reasonable to ask whether it makes sense to contemplate the introduction of additional carbon-based energy sources in this context.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently examining the potential environmental and health impacts of fracking.
This is important work, not least because policies must be based on the best available scientific evidence.
But, even if it is found to be safe, I find it hard to envisage a policy decision to introduce fracking, given that we are going for a low-carbon energy system in which oil and gas are gradually curtailed and, in the longer term, eliminated.
We will achieve the ambitious degree of decarbonisation set out in the White Paper only by engaging all citizens in energy policy decisions and their implementation.
Meeting the challenge of global warming can no longer be confined to the realm of international treaties or Government decisions.
Our energy system is going to change from one that is almost exclusively led by government and utilities, to one where individuals and communities will increasingly be participants in energy efficiency and renewable energy generation and distribution.
That's why the White Paper includes measures to democratise our energy system with concrete actions that will enable people to participate in energy-related decisions.
The proposal to establish a National Energy Forum, which will maximise and maintain consensus on the policies required to achieve the energy transition, has been widely welcomed.
Other new citizen engagement measures set out in the White Paper include support for local community participation in renewable energy projects, a framework for communities to share the benefits of new energy infrastructure, and the facilitation of national grid access for smaller-scale, renewable generation.
The energy transition will bring significant economic and employment opportunities.
We are harnessing the enthusiasm and creativity of our research and business communities to boost already significant employment opportunities in renewables, energy efficiency and related technologies.
Alex White is Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources