Thursday 22 August 2019

Everyone wins when we look to renewables

Instead of spending over €6bn a year on imported fossil fuels, we should invest in cleaner, cheaper energy, writes Eamon Ryan

SAVINGS: More wind farms will mean cheaper electricity for all. Stock picture
SAVINGS: More wind farms will mean cheaper electricity for all. Stock picture

Eamon Ryan

Colm McCarthy is aiming at the wrong target when he blames wind power for the high price of Irish electricity. The cost of generating power only accounts for a small percentage of what we see in our bills. The main reason our prices are out of line is because of our uniquely dispersed housing pattern. We are paying for all those wires and not just the power they carry.

Professor John Fitzgerald got it right at the recent Citizens Assembly on climate change when he said: "Renewable electricity meant the people of Ireland were actually paying less for electricity."

Because the fuel for the turbines comes for free, the wholesale price of electricity comes down every time the wind blows.

The European Commission found something similar when they did an extensive study of support schemes for renewables across Europe. They came to the conclusion that our support system was the most cost effective of all the countries they looked at.

Those findings backed up another study by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland in 2011, which made the economic case for wind power.

We are spending over €6bn a year on imported fossil fuels, which we are still relying on for some 90pc of our energy needs. We need to cut that bill and keep our money at home.

The case for change is environmental as well as economic. We've committed under the Paris Climate Accord to play our part in keeping the rise in global temperatures below dangerous tipping points.

That requires us to develop a carbon-free energy system by 2050 at the latest. What we build today will be still working by that date. We cannot afford to build a single new fossil fuel power plant and must shut down the most polluting stations right away.

Nuclear is not going to provide an alternative. It is too expensive and no young engineers are going into the area. They are all migrating over to renewables where they can see a real future.

This revolution is starting all over the world, so why would we, with some of the richest renewable resources, turn away from the opportunity? Why would Ireland which missed out so badly on the first industrial revolution, decide to skip the new, clean industrial revolution that is under way?

Renewables accounted for 90pc of all new power generation in Europe last year. The Chinese are going even further, outspending everyone, and are starting to reap the advantage of being technology leaders. Donald Trump is like King Canute trying to hold back the tide of change, but he will not stop California, Massachusetts or even Texas from similarly turning to wind and solar.

Renewable power is doubling every five years because the price continues to fall. We no longer need the old subsidy regime to support new investments and the Government here is about to switch to a new auction process where people bid competitively for the floor price they will need to get their projects financed.

Other countries have already done this and are seeing it further push down prices.

Colm McCarthy argues there are hidden costs from having to back up variable wind power. It is true we have a fine balancing act to do in matching variable power supplies with variable demand, but at every turn the doubters have been proved wrong on our ability to do that task.

Eirgrid, the public company which manages our main network of wires, has learned from experience how to be really good at this.

A side benefit is that it promotes greater energy efficiency, which has to be the first priority in any energy plan. It is the one area where we have shown real leadership and gained valuable expertise.

The challenge now is to use those same skills to transform our heating and transport sectors, as well as the power system. To meet our climate targets we need to replace two million cars with electric vehicles and replace a million oil-fired central heating systems with electric heat pumps.

Both technologies can provide an energy storage system for our renewable power. Eirgrid has set out what this future might look like in a 'low carbon living' scenario. By 2030, it thinks we could be using 75pc renewable electricity.

There is a clear path for us to get there. We need first to get our policy, legal and planning frameworks into line. The public must have confidence that these big societal and infrastructural changes will be carried out in a fair way, with clear benefits for individuals and communities.

We can then start turning to solar power, prioritising the installation of photovoltaic panels on every domestic roof, factory, farmyard barn and public building which faces south to the sun.

Using those roofs would bring a new ownership model where everyone has a stake in the transition.

We can further localise the benefits by supporting new community co-operatives which help people generate and sell their own power and adjust their own demand so we get lower bills and balance the whole network.

The next big step is to start developing wind power at sea. The cost of this technology has come down dramatically, in part thanks to the new auction systems.

We can start in the Irish Sea and as floating wind farms develop, we can start tapping into the Atlantic. For those workers in Moneypoint who are concerned about their future, the potential is now clear. We can use the grid connections to that plant and to the Tarbert station across the Shannon estuary as new centres where ocean energy comes ashore.

Other people want liquefied natural gas terminals at the same location, but they are not getting the bigger picture.

The fossil fuel era is over. We will not need all those dirty fuels because the local renewable alternative is better, cleaner and more competitive. It is time for us to start playing catch-up. Going for renewables gives us a future we can believe in and a more secure and fairer economy where everyone gets to gain.

Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party and TD for Dublin Bay South

Sunday Independent

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