More than half of all households in Ireland continue to use solid fuels such as coal, peat and wood, to heat their homes, according to new research published by the State’s environmental watchdog.
A study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency found 54% of households use solid fuels to heat their homes with 16% using them as the primary source of heating.
Almost 14% of households use turf, including 4% for whom it is their primary source of heating.
Those reliant on solid fuels as their main source of heating were more likely to have lower incomes and lower education levels as well as more likely to live in older houses.
The study found 94% of households that use turf as their primary heating source burn it for at least 42 hours per week on average during winter months.
Over 30% of households in all counties apart from Dublin, Offaly and Donegal use solid fuels to supplement their main source of heating with the figure reaching 60% in some counties in the south-east and border regions.
And solid fuels account for 17.6% of all energy used to heat homes in Ireland – the second highest rate among the 28 EU member states after Poland where they represent 40.2%.
However, researchers found low levels of knowledge among households about the environmental and health risk associated with the burning of solid fuels.
The findings come after a major political controversy erupted over proposals by the Minister for the Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport, Eamon Ryan, to ban the sale of turf.
The initiative by the Green Party leader has caused major division among the Coalition parties with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael backbenchers strongly objecting to the measure.
The EPA research found low-smoke coal and sod peat were the most widely used solid fuels in households for which they were the primary sources of heating with wood logs and peat briquettes most widely used as a supplement for households with other heating sources.
The number of households switching to solid fuels to heat their homes is greater than the number switching away from fuels like coal, peat and wood.
At the same time, a survey of over 1,800 households found policy options to reduce the use of solid fuels including grants and regulations on the use of smoky solid fuels were more supported than opposed.
The study, which was carried out by a team of researchers from the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork, found the non-traded solid fuel sector – purchases made through informal markets, own production or harvesting of fuels – accounts for approximately 25% of all solid fuels consumed in the Republic.
“Interviews with households examining their lived experiences of using solid fuels highlighted the strong affinity with burning solid fuels, particularly among rural dwellers,” said one of the report’s main authors, Dr John Eakins.
He added: “Rural dwellers also placed a high value on access to non-traded fuels which they indicated was a significant part of the way in which they provided fuel for themselves.”
While some households recognised the need to change their heating systems, Dr Eakins said information and assurances would need to be provided to persuade them to transition away from solid fuels.
“Measures to prevent householders falling into energy poverty would be key to acceptance if such activities were restricted,” said Dr Eakins.
The study found the location and age of dwellings were key factors in determining a who used solid fuels most.
People living in buildings built after 2011 are much less likely to use solid fuels.
Dr Eakins said the fact that primary and supplementary users of solid fuels had different characteristics and motivations was important for designing policies to transition people away from using solid fuels.
The EPA said the report was motivated by other studies which had highlighted air quality issues in cities and towns in Ireland with emissions of fine particulate matter generated by the burning of solid fuels a particular cause of concern as they are believed to be responsible for 1,300 premature deaths each year.
The EPA said the complexity of solid fuel use by households and the lack of reliable data was hampering the task of developing effective policy solutions to support the transition away from the use of solid fuels for heating homes.
It said evidence from other countries suggested that a range of different policy measures including retrofitting, tax breaks and awareness campaigns of the negative effects of using solid fuels, would be required to support an effective move away from their use.