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Fossil Fuels

'Neglected': Why Ireland is the worst country in the EU at using renewables to make heat energy

Only 6% of the energy required for heating and cooling in Ireland came from renewable sources in 2020.

IRELAND HAS THE worst performance in the EU for using renewable energy sources for heating and cooling, according to new European data.

Only 6% of the energy required for heating and cooling in Ireland came from renewable sources in 2020 – the lowest proportion of any EU country.

The Department of the Environment has acknowledged the finding and said that Ireland’s use of renewable energy for heat was a factor in not meeting broader targets for renewables in 2020.

Overall, renewable sources accounted for 23.1% of the energy used in the EU for heating and cooling in 2020.

Sweden, Estonia and Finland were the highest performers, with 66.4%, 58% and 58% respectively of energy for heating and cooling coming from renewable sources.

Renewables in Ireland only represented 6.3% of energy used for heating and cooling, slightly behind the Netherlands and Belgium, which were both at 8%.

Experts have explained to The Journal the factors that have led to Ireland’s poor performance, while the Department of the Environment says that progress is being made to increase renewable-powered heat.

Renewable_energy_heating_cooling_2020 Eurostat Eurostat

“While progress is being made in terms of increasing renewable heat, Ireland’s performance in the use of renewable energy in the heat sector was a factor in not meeting the 2020 overall target of 16% for renewable energy,” a spokesperson for the department told The Journal.

“There are supports currently available to increase the use of renewable energy for heating purposes,” the spokesperson said.

“For example, the Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH) is a government-funded initiative designed to increase the energy generated from renewable sources in the heat sector,” the spokesperson said.

“The scheme is open to commercial, industrial, agricultural, district heating, public sector and other non-domestic heat users.

“The Climate Action Plan (CAP 21), which sets the roadmap for halving our emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero no later than 2050, recognises the need to heat our homes and businesses from renewable sources.”

In 2020, 57% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions were energy-related. Around two-fifths of that is used to heat buildings.

Dr Fionn Rogan, a Senior Research Fellow at the MaREI research institute in Cork, said that renewable heat is a neglected area in policymaking.

“Of the energy-related share, 40% comes from heating buildings. It’s now the largest sector ahead of electricity and transport,” Dr Rogan said.

“Despite the large share coming from heat, renewable heat has been one of the most neglected policy areas for decades in Ireland,” he said. 

How did we get here?

Although the amount of energy coming from renewable sources in Ireland is increasing, the country has been slow to electrify heating and cooling systems compared to other countries in Europe.

In particular, Ireland lags behind on developing district heating – a network system that can deliver heat to buildings through insulated underground pipes for heating spaces and water.

Senior Lecturer in Building Engineering at TU Dublin Dr Ciara Ahern explained: “We tend to heat at source at the building rather than with a district heating system.”

“In our cities, our heating and cooling is predominantly gas-fired, while in rural Ireland it is oil-fired,”  Dr Ahern said. 

Ireland as a country hasn’t invested heavily in infrastructure in many years.

“If you think of what we did with Ardnacrusha and Turlough Hill, those major infrastructure projects, we haven’t carried out those in the last 10 years, certainly in Ireland, there has been a lack of investment in infrastructure.”

Ardnacrusha is a hydroelectric power station on the River Shannon that was constructed in the 1920s, while Turlough Hill is the site of a pumped-storage hydroelectricity plant in Co Wicklow that opened in 1974. Both were important developments in generating renewable energy for Ireland.

Elsewhere in Europe, high performers in renewable heat adopted strategies that haven’t been taken up in Ireland.

Dr Niall Farrell, energy and environmental economist at the ESRI, said that “a few traits that some of them share that can be quite interesting – it’s not going to drive everything but maybe it’s something that’s responsible for a lot of the variation”.

“Certain countries like Sweden and Denmark have a lot of district heating. Their cities are dense, urban environments where you can have a situation such that one generator that could be powering a town, or just a building even. In Ireland, our cities are not as dense, so we don’t really have district heating systems.”

District heating can be powered by fossil fuels, but because the system is centralised, it’s significantly easier to switch to renewable energy sources than when heating is delivered through smaller, individual units. 

“It also opens up other options for heat generation such as the recovery of waste heat from other processes,” Dr Farrell said.

shutterstock_1291722388 A district heating plant in Borås, Sweden. January 2019 Shutterstock / stilrentfoto Shutterstock / stilrentfoto / stilrentfoto

“Sweden, Iceland, Austria – they have a lot of geothermal, that’s a natural resource that helps them out there,” he said.

Sweden, with 66% of its energy for heating and cooling coming from renewable sources, is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Ireland.

“The thing with Sweden is they started thinking about climate a lot earlier than the rest of us. They had carbon prices in place in the 90s… They were thinking about climate, moving away from fossil fuels, long before the rest of Europe,” Dr Farrell said.

“They also have a huge forestry resource so they can put in place the district heating and then they can fuel that with biomass [organic material],” he said.

“They didn’t have a district heating policy, per se, they had perhaps a policy to move away from fossil fuels, move away from imported fuel, and district heating turned out to be the best thing that works for them.”

How do we solve it?

It mostly comes down to equipment and infrastructure – putting the right pieces of the puzzle in place and making sure they’re working properly.

Dr Ahern said that while the dominance of fossil fuels in heating is weakening, new fossil fuel boilers and furnaces risk slowing the transition to an electrified economy as they will continue to release carbon dioxide emissions throughout their lifespan of around 15 to 20 years.

The solution is the “rapid integration of heat pumps”, but some buildings will need to be refurbished to enable the pumps to work efficiently.

“The first step is refurbishing the stock and the second step is the heat pumps. Otherwise, they cost a fortune to run. You can’t put them in a poor-thermally performing building,” Dr Ahern explained.

Dr Farrell of the ESRI said that carbon taxes – a source of political contention in Ireland – are the key to funding these kinds of changes.

“Carbon tax is the foundation, it makes it more cost-effective. It’s not going to solve all the problems, but it’s going to put it on people’s horizon,” he said.

Additionally, Ireland needs to make it easier for people to install new technologies, he said.

For a lot of people, it’s an inconvenience, they don’t want people in their homes, they don’t want to think about this sort of thing, we need to make it easy for people to make the sustainable choice.

“The third thing is that there may be financial constraints. We have grants and things that are in play, but one thing that I would consider is do we need low-cost loans? People maybe in the long-term would have the financial resources, but they just don’t have this once-off lump sum that they would need for this installation, so the loan scheme might be useful in that regard.

“The final one then is perhaps that even if we did have the desire and move to put all these mechanisms in place, do we have people there to do the installations? This is the problem when it comes to the housing crisis in general and it’s an issue when it comes to this context also.

“We need enough tradespeople. Are they here? And if they’re not, how do we get people to come to Ireland from other countries and be attractive? In terms of the cost of living and things like that, it always comes into that decision for people to come from other countries.”

The Climate Action Fund is currently providing funding for two district heating projects in Dublin.

The Tallaght District Heating scheme, which is being constructed, will use waste heat from a data centre to heat surrounding buildings, including the Tallaght campus of TU Dublin.

A Dublin District Heating System is currently in the planning stages. The project aims to capture waste heat that is generated at industrial facilities and pipe it into homes and businesses in Poolbeg, Ringsend and the Docklands.

National Heat Study

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is currently working on a National Heat Study that will examine options for decarbonising heating and cooling sectors in Ireland between now and 2050.

It will “provide valuable insights and data to underpin policy development”, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said.

“The publication of the National Heat Study and the outcome of the consultation on the introduction of a renewable energy obligation will inform future policy and work continues towards meeting the targets set out in CAP21 to increase the use of renewable sources for heating purposes,” the spokesperson said.

Dr Fionn Rogan said that “if sufficient policy flows from this set of reports, it could be a game-changer for renewable heat in Ireland”.

“The latest Climate Action Plan has targets to dramatically increase the share of district heating, which will help Ireland achieve its renewable heat targets,” he said.

“Achieving the reduction in emissions by 2030 (-51%) in line with the recently published carbon budgets from the CCAC will be daunting.”

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