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SPECIAL REPORT: Wind Energy

Update Time:2014-04-07 14:13:59 Writer: Source:

By Claire O'Sullivan
Irish Examiner Reporter

A United Nations (UN) report on climate change warned last week that storm surges, flooding and rising sea levels will wreak increasing havoc on our lives unless Governments take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

Later in the week, the warnings were emanating from the US: Europe needed to become more energy independent as its dependency on Russian gas was giving Moscow far too much political leverage, as witnessed by its limp response to the seizure of Crimea. In the same week, Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte attended the Oireachtas Environment Committee, where the generation and use of electricity in this country was the order of the day. Amid cries from TDs and senators that fuel poverty needs to be tackled, Mr Rabbitte backed “our unique wind resource” as our most realistic way of meeting our EU renewable energy targets.

Wave, hydro and tidal energy “are not an answer today or tomorrow”, he said, and “the advice is that we don’t have the biomass”. His department’s green paper on energy is to go to Cabinet in three weeks after which it will be debated in and outside the Oireachtas. But the energy debate isn’t confined to this country.

As the Observer noted in the UK, “how can we modernise and decarbonise without pushing up prices and increasing fuel poverty?”.In this country, the wind energy sector is being strongly backed by the Department of Energy and semi-state bodies but not by many rural communities and a cohort of economists. We look at the arguments about why wind is and isn’t the way forward for this country.

'QUALITY OF ELECTRICAL SUPPLY CRITICAL'

Brian Ó Gallachóir is a lecturer in energy engineering at University College Cork and he thinks there’s too much focus on how to decarbonise electricity in this country.

“Electricity is less than one fifth of the energy mix here. I think our electricity targets for 2020 are appropriate but we have stalled development in other areas of energy. We need to shift the emphasis away from just electricity.”

In order to meet binding EU targets, the Government chose to set a target of 40% of electricity, 12% of heat and 10% of transport from renewables by 2020.

A fan of wind energy himself, he says it’s good for the consumer as “it’s a hedge against fossil fuels that we have no control over”.

“We know where our wind energy can come from and we can’t rely on fossil fuels. Without doubt, the wind has made a very positive contribution to the increase in renewables. And Eirgrid, I believe, have made a very positive contribution, not just when it comes to wind but also in ensuring that we have a strong electricity backbone.

“If we want to attract industry to this country, the quality of electrical supply is critical.”

He thinks attention must now turn to decarbonising the heating and transport sector and he says bioenergy has a role to play here.

He points to biogas solutions as developed by his colleague, Jerry Murphy, who says Irish grassland is under-utilised and is the “optimum biofuel for Ireland” as we “are the best grass growers in the world”.

“This gas could be fed into the gas network and blended in. Bord Gáis would need to put certain specifications in place for the gas but it could enter the mix like wind-generated electricity.”

Mr Murphy has long said unemployed construction workers could be used to build the grass digestors needed, while thousands could be employed in rural areas through agricultural co-operatives which could feed grass, slurry and domestic waste to the digestors.

As Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte has acknowledged, Mr Ó Gallachóir believes building regulations need to increase their emphasis on energy efficiency in homes and businesses. He says too much oil is being burnt in Irish homes. “Gas and biogas would make lower carbon heating options for houses on the gas network while those off the gas grid might look at heat pumps,” he says.

But aren’t heat pumps expensive? “Yes, that is a consideration but we need to consider the long term and not just the short term. The era of cheap oil is over.”

Cheap oil may be over but finding a competitively- priced alternative that will allow us security of supply is convulsing Western countries. While many of the opponents of wind export point to fracking, bioenergy, even nuclear as a cheaper alternative to wind, the Irish Wind Energy Association are categoric.

“There is no other renewable alternative existing today which can deliver clean, efficient, sustainable and economical energy. This is why the Government has chosen wind energy as the prime renewable resource to meet our EU targets,” a spokesman said.

“The February Bord Gáis Energy Index states that 23% of Ireland’s electricity demand was met by wind in which displaced more expensive gas powered plants and helped lower wholesale electricity prices.

“Wind similarly brought down wholesale prices in January and December, and has been helping to counterbalance the Ukrainian crisis which pushed wholesale gas prices higher.”

Partner with Philip Lee Solicitors, Alice Whittaker, who specialises in climate and environment, has warned of the dangers of the “information vacuum” that exists around energy options here.

Like TDs at last week’s environment committee, she called for an energy plan where everything from wind to bioenergy to fracking can be compared in terms of economic benefit, security of supply, emissions and cost to consumer. The Department of Energy has completed such an analysis but it won’t be published until the talks on the wind export deal end.

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