Our UK neighbours seem to have found themselves in quite the difficult situation, haven’t they?
They’re facing such a chronic shortage of truck drivers that people are already worried about whether they will enjoy Christmas. But worse, as we have seen on every news bulletin for the past few days, they’re facing an even more chronic shortage of fuel. Numerous fights have broken out at petrol stations, with knives being pulled, punches thrown and motorists now limited to buying only £30 (€35) worth of petrol.
Truly, they’re facing into their latest Winter of Discontent. The fact many observers are genuinely worried they could be hurtling back to the bad old days of the 1970s, when three-day weeks and rolling blackouts were the norm, is a sure sign things could quickly spiral out of control.
Thankfully, we don’t have to endure the same problems that assail our friends in the UK. Well, not yet anyway, because there’s no reason to suggest we won’t, at some stage, find ourselves in a similar predicament.
Whenever a politician promises the sun, the moon and the stars, every sensible person rolls their eyes and pays no attention. But when a senior minister starts to issue dire warnings of impending bad news, it’s time to sit up and take them seriously.
Eamon Ryan was desperate to avoid looking like our Minister for Hardship, a la Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, when he made a rather chilling announcement.
According to him, the energy situation in Ireland is becoming “very tight” and we are due to face immense challenges over the next few years. Frankly, “the next few years” seems optimistic, because the way the world economy is going, it feels like we have trouble waiting just beyond our doorstep.
I don’t know anyone who pays huge attention to the price of a barrel of oil or the fluctuating cost of natural gas – it’s a rather dry and complicated business, after all. But the fact that the cost of these precious commodities has shot through the roof is going to have a major impact on all of us this winter.
European gas prices have risen by an eye-watering 300pc in recent times, while a barrel of crude oil, already at a three-year high, is expected to reach $90 by the end of the year.
Simply put, that means most of us are looking at a hike of at least 500 quid in our heating bills this winter. That’s an increase many of us simply can’t afford and which will push many people, particularly the elderly, to make a stark choice – heat or eat.
According to Ryan, the Government has a clear plan. “It’s about regulating supply and demand,” he says.
That brings us to the vexed issue of data centres. These energy-guzzling hubs for the big tech companies have a voracious appetite for electricity. It’s estimated the average data centre uses as much power as the city of Kilkenny and, incredibly, these hubs are expected to consume 70pc of the national grid by 2030.
This is where we find ourselves in a classic dilemma – do we continue to attract foreign investment from the big tech companies such as Facebook and Google, or do we limit their number and face the prospect of these companies, which employ enormous numbers of Irish people, simply packing their bags and moving elsewhere?
When it comes to this question, it seems to be a binary choice – jobs or the environment.
The Irish Academy of Engineers reckons we need to invest at least €9bn in the national grid if we want to keep our heads above water, so it’s time to start looking at ways to make ourselves more energy-independent than we are at the moment.
Wind farms are the Marmite of the energy debate. Violently opposed by some, vigorously supported by others, the simple fact is that the technology has not yet reached the point where it will be the cure for all our ills. It may develop to the point where it becomes a magic bullet for our needs, but that point is still in the future.
As an island, we also need to seriously consider a massive hydro-electric scheme.
It’s also time we started to talk about the ‘N’ word – nuclear. There’s a vociferous, almost religious objection to the idea of Ireland building its own nuclear power plant. Maybe it’s a throwback to the protests at Carnsore Point back in the 1970s. Maybe it’s a sense of trepidation in the wake of Chernobyl.
But despite the strident objections of the anti-nuclear lobby, it’s the cleanest and most cost-efficient way of producing the vast amounts of power we’re going to need.
I made this point on a TV show last year, and the reaction from the other guests was one of sheer, unadulterated horror. The fact that the new, smaller power plants are immeasurably safer than the ones that went before seemed to cut no ice. The fact we could find ourselves in a position where we’re independent and no longer relying on Russian gas supplies didn’t seem to matter.
As far as my fellow guests were concerned, it would be better to go without lights than to get into bed with the nuclear industry.
That attitude may have been fine when the situation wasn’t as critical as it is now, but we’re facing down the barrel of a genuine catastrophe; we need to explore all the options and look at them rationally, rather than through the lens of an instinctively anti-nuclear reflex.
I remember an old sticker my hippy father had on the back of his car during the Carnsore Point controversy: “Nuclear power – nein danke.”
These days? Nuclear power – thank you very much. We need it.