Are renewables the answer to Ireland’s energy crisis?

The current crisis in the energy markets may seem like it’s all doom and gloom, every week another electricity or gas supplier announces a price hike with the consumer powerless, at the whim of the global commodity prices. However, offshore wind presents a unique opportunity for Ireland, to both decarbonise and secure electricity supply, and our position as a late adopter of the technology could speed up the build-out. Our great seascape can provide us with the opportunity to become energy independent in a way we could have never previously imagined, and with electricity demand projected to increase by between 19% and 50% by 2030, the rollout of new renewables cannot come quick enough.

Ireland has set a target for 80% of our electricity demand to be met by renewables by 2030, this is a lofty ambition. In practical terms, this is more than a doubling of our current state of affairs. Renewable generation made up 36% of electricity supply in 2019, 40% in 2020 and 32% in 2021 respectively. To achieve the 80% target Ireland needs to install a lot more renewable generators, increase energy storage and continue to use natural gas as our backup fuel for the time being.

So what type, or technology of renewables, must we install to achieve the generation capacity needed? Well, the climate action plan targets at least a 5GW capacity of offshore wind, up to 8GW of onshore wind and 1.5-2.5GW of solar. An offshore wind farm has numerous advantages over onshore windfarms, they are much bigger in size allowing them to capture far more energy per turbine, out at sea there are higher average wind speeds and due to their position in the sea they do not have any neighbours which impact on them. Between now and 2030 there will be two Renewable Electricity Support Scheme auctions that will be offshore wind specific, hopefully helping this nascent industry to get off the ground.

As a late adopter of offshore wind, notwithstanding our single existing site the Arklow bank, we are in a great position to roll out the technology quicker than other countries. The learnings Ireland can take from countries like the UK and Denmark will be invaluable, but we must act quickly, as offshore wind farms have a much longer development cycle than onshore. It can take 10 years or more to build an offshore wind farm from scratch and we have a number of projects that are already progressed down the development path, however, policymakers in government need to ensure development barriers do not fall at their feet.

With our dependency on wind and solar growing, the question remains, what can Ireland do to provide low carbon electricity, when the wind does not blow or there are clouds in the sky?  Energy storage could provide a reliable backup and takes many forms. Lithium-Ion batteries are the most commonly used grid-level energy storage and are now coupled up with solar panels in many domestic homes. Between now and 2030, solar panels and battery systems could become as common as coffee machines in Irish homes, something unthinkable 10 years ago.

However, the fact remains, efficient natural gas generation will be the backup fuel of choice between now and 2030, the government is targeting 2GW of new gas generators over the next few years, primarily to assist our already ageing fleet of existing fossil-fuelled generators. After 2030, as Ireland looks towards a zero-carbon electricity system, natural gas will need to be paired with carbon capture technology, or alternatively, we may look to hydrogen.

Hydrogen is being touted as a solution to our energy security crisis and although at present it is not cost-competitive, it is easy to see how Ireland could become a world leader. Hydrogen can be produced at scale via a process called electrolysis, which is the splitting of water into Hydrogen and Oxygen gases. The oxygen is released or used in other industry applications and the hydrogen can be stored as a gas, transported, or similarly to Oxygen, used in a range of industry applications. Ireland does not currently have any major industry which already uses hydrogen as a feedstock, so its primary use could be in heavy goods transport and public vehicles. Hydrogen could also be blended with natural gas in our gas network and used to generate electricity for backup power. With up to 30GW of offshore wind potential, Ireland could become a large producer of hydrogen both for our own domestic uses and international export.

The future is bright for Ireland when it comes to energy, with a massive untapped offshore wind resource that will always be able to satisfy our domestic demand, we have the potential to become energy independent in the 2030s. Early action will be the key, the current crisis in global commodity prices has put firm focus on sustainable security of supply. High prices are likely to remain over the short term, however building offshore wind between now and 2030 could be crucial to reducing prices for consumers, and hydrogen presents an opportunity thereafter to secure our energy independence forever more.

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