DUBLIN is today the setting for a decisive round in the fight to clean up Europe’s energy system.
As one of the smaller members of the European Union, Ireland has a reputation for punching above its weight in Brussels. This is especially true now that Ireland holds the rotating EU presidency, chairing meetings of European ministers.
Today the Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte – alongside Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan – will preside over a meeting of over 50 European ministers for energy and environment in Dublin, a rare event even by EU standards. And the single topic that warrants such a meeting is no less than Europe’s energy and climate future.
The year 2020 may seem far off, but for the energy sector it is just around the corner. By the end of the decade, 35% of Europe’s power plants and much of the continent’s ageing power grids will need to be replaced or upgraded, whatever Europe’s energy choices. This is expected to require €1 trillion in investments. The crucial point, which is linked to the ministers’ discussion today, is whether the investments are used to cement a system skewed towards dirty and dangerous technologies, like coal and nuclear power, or whether they are used to create a modern system where smaller, smarter and cleaner energy can thrive.
The clash between these two incompatible systems can be seen across Europe as renewable energy begins to cut into the comfortable profits of fossil fuel plants. Irish consumers are already benefitting from renewables: a joint report by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and EirGrid revealed that wind generation reduced electricity costs by around €74 million in 2011. Renewables bring down energy prices because they have much lower running costs (mainly because most of their ‘fuels’, like wind and sun, are free). Energy efficiency programmes to improve insulation and energy systems in homes and offices across Ireland have also delivered €35 million in savings in 2012 and supported 4,000 jobs.
The argument is even more compelling if we consider that high shares of expensive natural gas have been pushing up Irish electricity prices. Renewables in fact countered this trend by saving the economy €300 million in gas imports in 2011. Ireland’s dependence on expensive imports like oil and gas from increasingly volatile energy markets has become a serious economic liability, bleeding the Irish economy of €6 billion every year – the equivalent of €1,300 for every person in the country.
Minister Rabbitte understands the benefits of renewables and has already expressed support for an ambitious renewable energy target for Europe in 2030. As Ireland is part of the European energy market, it needs this market to require clean renewable energy if it wants to export its abundant natural wind resources. A European target for a 45% share of renewables in 2030 would help secure this demand.
All companies investing in the Irish economy stand to benefit from cheaper, cleaner energy and a smarter power grid. There is great potential for IT and high-tech companies in particular to play a leading role in developing and selling green technologies, both in Ireland and abroad. And renewable energy is the cornerstone, with energy efficiency, of any serious effort to fight climate change.
This means that the stakes for today's meeting are high. Minister Rabbitte has a one-off opportunity to gently but firmly guide his fellow ministers in a direction that will be good for Ireland and good for Europe, towards ambitious renewable energy and efficiency targets for 2030.
Jorgo Riss is Director, Greenpeace EU