We are heading into winter with no thought for our energy security, and planning to bet the farm on airport trains
It was perhaps a natural choice for Eamon Ryan to opt for the transport and energy portfolios when the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green government was being assembled in June 2020.
The Green Party leader is Minister for the Environment, Energy and Communications, and he separately heads the Department of Transport.
These departments will be central if key elements of the green agenda are to be accomplished.
These elements include the decarbonisation of the energy system (through the encouragement of energy efficiency and greater reliance on renewable power), and changes in the transport sector (through the promotion of cycling and the switch to electric traction for cars and other vehicles).
The two departments need policies which are complementary: not much point subsidising electric cars if they run on coal-fired electricity.
The Government’s climate plan is ambitious, and performance to date has been flattered by the Covid-induced slowdown, which curtailed energy demand.
Stripped of the Covid effect, carbon emissions in Ireland, and around the world, are still rising and there is widespread scepticism that Irish targets will be met.
Whether country-by-country targets are the optimal policy in addressing a global excess of emissions has been debated by economists since the scientists raised the alarm in the early 1990s. They are not.
The best policy would be a consumption-side carbon tax — but the world has 200 governments, and a sane worldwide policy architecture is a pipe-dream.
The EU has opted for national targets, at least for now, and member-states are enjoined to comply.
Precise annual targets for emissions are a stick with which governments will assuredly be beaten, if the targets continue to be under-attained. A target is not a policy, and the Irish plan puts the targets up front, with policies to follow.
Targets for individual economic sectors, with policies attached, are to be announced in coming months and the political battles have commenced.
Minister Ryan has commissioned a report on energy security, in draft and overdue for release, which will require some awkward decisions.
Ireland has insecure supply arrangements for both gas and electricity — understood by engineers for several years now but seeping into public consciousness only since the recent warnings about blackouts from Eirgrid, the transmission system operator.
Our sole electricity backup is routed through interconnectors from Britain, and our only gas pipelines also deliver gas from Britain.
Gas is the main fuel for generating electricity — and domestic supplies from the only Irish field, off Co Mayo, deliver only one-third of Irish requirements. The field is being depleted and will be largely used up inside five or six years.
There is hardly any gas storage in Ireland, no facility to import liquefied gas (LNG), and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made every country in Europe nervous about energy security.
Ireland’s policy is to keep fingers crossed and hope that supplies from Britain will be adequate.
Britain imports and exports gas via pipelines serving Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands. They have plans for new pipelines, but they are many years away. Britain draws gas mainly from fields in the UK and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea, and has several LNG terminals that can take gas from more distant sources, including Qatar and the US.
There could be a shut-off of UK gas to the European Union next winter if things get difficult, according to numerous press reports last week which were not picked up by Irish mainstream media.
The UK government was reassuring, according to the Financial Times: "The UK government said it was ‘fully confident’ about the security of energy supply heading into the winter, arguing it had ‘one of the most reliable and diverse energy systems in the world’. It said it believed a gas emergency was ‘extremely unlikely’.”
The UK does not have “one of the most reliable and diverse energy systems in the world” in the opinion of the grid operator, which warned publicly that a winter EU shut-off is part of the emergency plan.
Minister Ryan needs to prepare for the possibility that the engineers might be a better guide than the politicians.
To be specific, there needs to be a plan to allocate gas, other than through the price mechanism, if there is actual physical shortage. And it should be announced as soon as possible. The report on energy security should be published.
There is another report in Eamon Ryan’s in-tray that needs to be released. This is the business case for the MetroLink underground rail link from Dublin city centre on a single route north to the airport and Swords.
When this project was expected to cost around €3bn to €4bn, the supporting economic evaluation looked like a bit of a stretch.
There is already a road tunnel — built and paid for, with spare capacity — and frequent bus services. One of the proposed Bus Connects routes is on the very same alignment.
Dublin Airport is Ireland’s busiest bus station — but people weren’t missing flights this summer because they were late getting to the airport.
There have been undenied reports that the latest cost estimate for the MetroLink project is €10.5bn, at which price it will never be built.
It’s just not worth it for a single rail line, delivering capacity that is not needed, with journey times not much better than what is currently available on bus services through the Port Tunnel.
The Government seems too paralysed to acknowledge that the most recent cost estimate is a show-stopper, and just forget it. The fact that €250m has already been spent on this project is not a good reason for spending another €10bn-plus.
Minister Ryan instead plans to seek cabinet approval, without publishing the business case including the cost estimate, for an application to An Bord Pleanala for a railway order. This will gum up an overburdened ABP for a year or more.
This is not the measured process of evaluation for big capital projects, We are moving into winter as required under the Public Spending Code.