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Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Sowed and Reaped
'It shouldn't have been a surprise': How policy choices brought Ireland's energy to the brink
Experts explain how decisions made in years gone by have led us to our current position of facing down a bleak winter, even without the war in Ukraine.

NEARLY A HUNDRED years ago, a small village on the banks of the River Shannon in Co Clare became the home of the Ardnacrusha power plant – a generator powered by the strength of the Shannon and Ireland’s first major energy investment.

At the time, only a few years into the foundation of the Irish Free State, it was briefly the most powerful hydroelectric power station in the world.

Much has changed in the energy landscape since then, from massive increases in demand to the development of an interconnector with the UK to most recently the pressure put on Europe by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The war has massive implications for energy around Europe, particularly since Putin targeted gas supplies from Russia through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, pushing prices upwards to dramatic heights.

But the war alone did not bring Ireland to its present perilous energy position as margins between supply and demand narrow and the chance of power shortages during winter rises.

Experts explained to The Journal how government energy policy choices made in years gone by have brought us to our current point of facing down a bleak winter.

‘We dropped the ball on that’

The 2000s were quite a time of change in Ireland’s energy system.

As far back as the 70s, studies had looked into the possibility of an interconnector between Ireland and the UK, but it took until 2007 for work to begin on the East-West interconnector between Ireland and Wales, an undersea power cable that links the two systems to allow suppliers access to both markets.

That interconnector, along with another between Scotland and Northern Ireland, allows power generated elsewhere in Europe to reach the island of Ireland and for excess energy produced here to be exported abroad.

Additionally, on the island, the electricity systems in Northern Ireland and the Republic linked up in 2007 to create the Single Electricity Market.

Dr Paul Deane, a senior researcher at the MaREI centre, described that as a “very positive” development for the sector.

The single market “attracted new investment in the market and helped to keep prices down”, Dr Deane said.

It was also the decade that wind farms came into their own.

Ireland’s first wind farm had been built in Co Mayo in 1992 but progress was relatively slow in the immediate years to follow. By 2000, only 12 wind farms were operational, providing just 1% of the country’s electricity.

That changed when the EU set renewable energy targets for member states in 2001 and, a few years later, in 2005, the Irish retail electricity market became fully open to competition, meaning that customers could choose their own supplier. Together, those factors changed the game for onshore wind and Ireland’s wind electricity capacity increased from 169 MW to 744 MW between 2003 and 2006.

On the international stage, Ireland has done relatively well at onshore wind but offshore has been a different story.

view-of-wind-turbine-farm-though-a-backroad-in-rural-north-county-kerry-ireland Alamy Stock Photo Wind turbines in north Co Kerry Alamy Stock Photo

The first offshore wind farm – the Arklow Bank Wind Park in the Irish Sea, 10km off the Wicklow coast – also became functional in the 2000s but offshore developments were not ramped up to nearly the same extent as their onshore counterparts.

“Historically, we’ve done very well in terms of building onshore wind. It’s not just about building wind in Ireland; connecting wind to a power system that’s very small and very isolated posed a lot of technical problems that were new in the power-systems world and Ireland overcame those problems very successfully,” Dr Deane said.

“As a result of that, last year, for example, just under four out of every ten units of electricity came from renewables. The majority of that was from onshore wind. That’s been a success story but we haven’t done so well in the offshore wind,” he said.

“We really dropped the ball on that.”

He said that while Ireland made little progress in offshore wind over the last two decades, “other countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and UK have very been very strong”.

That failure to develop offshore wind was a missed opportunity for Ireland’s energy market, according to Dave Linehan, Head of Research at Wind Energy Ireland.

“On the windiest days, the wholesale price on the market goes down substantially,” Linehan said.

“What we have found is that as the crisis gets worse from an imported gas perspective, if we had in hindsight got more and more wind on the system, which ultimately is driven by policy, the price would go down even further,” he said.

“We’ve got this huge ambition for 2030 in terms of the targets in the Climate Action Plan for onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar.

But unfortunately, we find ourselves in winter of 2022 and the policy decisions of 10 years ago not to pursue offshore wind back then, for example, are coming back to bite us now by being so reliant on imported gas.”

He pointed to the cheaper cost of developing onshore wind compared to offshore in the past as a reason why the former was developed more efficiently than the latter.

“Arguably, the decision was right in the context of prices, because onshore wind at the time was a much cheaper form of technology than offshore wind. It’s only in the last five to six years that the price of offshore in particular has been decreasing rapidly and it’s now catching up with onshore,” Linehan said.

“Onshore remains the cheapest form and certainly, one of the areas we’re still pushing for is alongside getting offshore going, we still need to double down on increasing the amount of onshore wind that we have.

“Offshore wind will not be in a position to deliver for Ireland for at least five more years. We need to continue building renewables onshore in the meantime if we’ve got any chance of hitting the 2030 carbon reduction targets that we set ourselves.”

‘It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone’

Well before Russian forces brutally crossed into Ukraine, alarm bells had sounded in Ireland about the precarity of energy supplies.

EirGrid published a report in September 2021 that predicted the country could face electricity shortfalls over the subsequent five years due to demand rising while supply lowered due to the closure of fossil fuel-fired power stations. 

Much of the growth in demand for energy has come from data centres, which were responsible for 14% of all of the electricity usage in 2021. That was a rise of 32% compared to 2020 and 265% compared to 2015. 

On the supply side, there were problems last year with forecasted power generation falling through, with a longer-term issue around fossil-fuel power plants that have operated for years reaching a point where they are no longer fit for purpose.

“The physical crisis in terms of our ability to meet demand is nothing to do with the war,” Dr Deane said.

“That is because of poor choices we have made here in Ireland over the last two years where we haven’t been successful in building new conventional power plants,” he said.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone – it was flagged from a number of years out and that’s unfortunately where we are today.”

Linehan said that challenges in connecting new renewable sources to the grid are also slowing down the pace at which Ireland can ramp up supply.

“A project needs to go through three hurdles of having planning permission, having a grid connection, and having a route to market or Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS) contract,” Linehan said.

“What we find is that there’s lots of projects that have been sitting in the planning system for over a year now,” he said.

He outlined that applications for a grid connection open in batches on an annual basis.

“There’s projects that have been sitting in the planning system that weren’t eligible to apply for the grid connection process twelve months ago because they were waiting for planning – those same projects are actually still stuck in the planning queue, so for a second year in a row, they won’t be eligible to apply for grid connection because they’re stuck in the planning process.”

“If those projects were to get their decisions made sooner, we’d be getting new onshore renewable projects built two or three years from now, which could make a real difference in the next couple of winters where we’re facing these really high bills.”

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