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Renewable Energy Ireland: Sustainable & Green Energy

Wind turbines on a hill

Sustainable Energy Ireland

Over the last decade or so, the Irish energy sector has undergone an incredible transformation. Previously, energy generation depended heavily on fossil fuels and peat-fueled power stations

As the death knell sounds for fossil fuels, fulfilling Irish and international energy needs by finding more sustainable means of producing energy, has become a must. In order to achieve this, it has become increasingly apparent that renewable energy will play a crucial role. How large a role exactly, has already been decided by the EU, who set minimum binding targets for 2020, 2030, and 2050. The targets below are based on reductions from 2000-2005 levels.

Year Goal
2020 20% greenhouse gas reduction
2030 40% greenhouse gas reduction
2050 80-95% greenhouse gas reduction

Progress has been made towards meeting these ambitious targets, even though at the time of writing Ireland looks set to miss its 2020 target. In 2017 alone, fossil fuel imports decreased by €1.2 million across the island. The percentage of energy sourced from renewables also increased by 5% between 2005 and 2014.

Considering that up until 2015, nearly 90% of Irish energy depended on imports, this is a heartening development. By 2010, Ireland was producing almost 15% of its electricity from renewable sources, and by 2017, 30.1% - still short of the required 40% renewable electricity sub-target for 2020.

What is renewable energy?


Green hills with solar panels and wind turbines

Renewable energy, is defined as energy from a source that is not depleted when used. Often confused with green energy, all green energy is renewable but not all renewable energy is green - green energy comes from natural sources only, such as wind, water, and wave energy. Renewable energy comes in many forms, but in Ireland sources for it include biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydro, solar, tidal, water, wave, waste, wind and wood.

Electrically powered heat pumps can also be considered somewhat renewable as even though they do require units of electricity to operate, they produce up to four times more energy than used.

Renewable Energy Ireland

Biofuels

Biofuels are made by converting biomass into liquid energy. The two most common forms are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is an alcohol which can be added to fuels to cut down on emissions, or some new cars can also run mainly on it but do require some petrol (at least 15%). Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol with a fat and can also be added to fuels, or used as the main fuel source instead of diesel.

In Ireland there is a Biofuels Obligation Scheme (BOS) in place, which from January 2019 requires 11.11% of all motor fuels on the market to be mixed with or produced from ethanol or biodiesel. Some critics of biofuel point out that Ireland imports the majority of the materials needed to make it, and as such it is not a sustainable option geared towards making Ireland more energy-independent.

Biomass


Three blocks of compacted wood

Biomass is fuel developed from organic materials, such as scrap wood, crops, manure, and some types of waste residues. It is viewed as a green energy, as its sources are grown using energy from the sun, and is also an additional more sustainable way to deal with waste.

Waste residues will always exist, so why not take advantage of them? In addition, waste residues and organic material can be sourced close to home, rather than being imported. Biomass is also carbon neutral, as many of the materials used to make it would otherwise have ended up in landfills.

For industrial use and energy production, biomass can be used by burning material in power plant that then generate steam, that in turn runs turbines to generate electricity. The first combined heat and power plant using wood waste was constructed in Cork in 2004 at a sawmill (Grainger Sawmills)

At home, scrap wood can be used for home-heating or to run boilers. In particular, wood pellet stoves and boilers have seen a rise in popularity in Ireland, with stylish sleek modern models that add value to many a home.

Geothermal

Geothermal energy use in Ireland is mainly provided through heat pumps, which draw thermal energy from the ground to meet up to 75% of home’s heating and hot water energy requirements. You may be thinking that Ireland is too cold to extract much thermal energy from the ground, but a meter below the surface temperatures tend to remain a constant 10 degrees year-round. There are grants for installing geothermal systems in homes, and once installed, a household’s energy requirements can drop to a quarter of previous levels.

Hydroelectric


A dam with water exiting through sluices

Flowing water contains energy which can be captured and converted to hydroelectric energy. This is normally achieved by creating a dam or channeling water through a turbine. Ireland has been using hydroelectric energy for quite a while, with the opening of the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station on the river Shannon in 1929.

Ardnacrusha currently provides around 2% of Ireland’s electricity needs. Smaller stations can also be built to service individual homes or communities and can benefit from the government's REFIT (Renewable Energy Feed In Tariff) where excess electricity generated can be fed in to the national grid and paid for by the government.

Some benefits of hydroelectric power are that it’s clean, renewable and is a local energy source, but care does need to be taken to minimise the environmental impact of hydroelectric station sites.

Solar

Solar energy is one of the cleanest renewable energy sources there is, and new ways of harnessing it are continuously evolving. The most common sources of extracting solar energy in Ireland are through solar panels, both photovoltaic and thermal. It is a commonly held misconception that Ireland doesn’t get enough sunlight to justify the use of solar panels.

However, even during a particularly dull year Ireland still receives 70% of the sunlight that other sunnier places get, for example Madrid. Solar panels are suitable for both home and business use and benefit from government subsidies, such as the SEAI better energy home grants.

Photovoltaic panels work by using photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity while thermal solar panels work by directly transferring heat energy to water (which is warmed in the panel’s pipes), thus supplying hot water and eliminating the need for energy to be used to heat water. Solar PV panels are one of the world’s fastest growing renewable electricity generation technologies, but uptake in Ireland has, until now, been relatively limited.

Tidal/Wave

Tidal power is a form of hydroelectric power that draws energy from the tides and requires significant tidal differences (at least five metres difference between low-tide water levels and high-tide levels). Tidal barrages are one manner of extracting tidal power where water approaching the shoreline at high tide is stored in dams and released via sluices to generate energy during low tide.

Tidal fences and tidal turbines are less common in Ireland, as they are less efficient than tidal barrages, but are also used to generate electricity from tidal power. Currently the only tidal power station on the island of Ireland is in Northern Ireland (Strangford Lough Tidal Turbine), although two larger tidal energy stations have been slated for construction off the coast of Antrim. Due to Ireland’s geographic location, it is ideally located to take advantage of tidal energy, and a 2014 government report proposed that up to 1500MW could be generated in this manner without damaging the environment.

Wave energy involves harnessing energy from the contact of wind with ocean surfaces. It is not as reliable or predictable as tidal energy but when harnessed efficiently, can provide a steady stream of electricity. Wave energy converters are currently in use off the west coast of Ireland (OE Buoy.)

Water

Apart from hydroelectric, tidal and wave energy, which all rely on water movement, thermal energy can also be extracted from water. This is the principal behind some heat pumps, but of course one drawback is that the buildings using this form of generating electricity and hot water, need to be near a body of water.

Waste


A dam with water exiting through sluices

Apart from the use of certain waste residues for biofuel or biomass energy production, there is also energy generated from incinerating waste. One example of a power plant using such energy is the Covanta station in Poolbeg Dublin.

Although not strictly “clean”, this process does reduce the volume of non-recyclable materials by 90% and is technically carbon-neutral as it is using waste which has already been produced.

There is also the possibility of extracting methane gas from landfill sites to generate electricity, which companies such as Bioverda in Ireland specialise in doing. Bioverda belongs to the Beauparc group, as does Panda Power.

Wind

There are 226 wind farms in the Republic of Ireland and in 2015 they generated a record 23% of the electricity needed. Development of wind farms in Ireland is subsidized by the EU and the PSO (public service obligation) levy that everyone pays on their electricity bills. Wind power is difficult to predict and fluctuates between being able to provide nearly nothing, and up to 32.3% of the electricity requirements of Ireland.

Renewable energy companies ireland

Residential electricity suppliers in Ireland which currently provide 100% renewable energy include Energia, Just Energy, Panda Power, and SSE Airtricity. FOr SME (small and medium enterprises) and industrial energy needs, Go Power and Naturgy also provide 100% renewable energy.

RESS (Renewable Electricity Support Scheme)


A dam with water exiting through sluices

In July 2018 the RESS was given the green light by the Irish government. The scheme is designed to incentivise the development of renewable electricity and encourage community participation in projects. Auctions will be held throughout the lifetime of the scheme to secure the most favourable electricity prices for consumers.

Auctions are scheduled to begin in 2019, in order to close the gap as much and as quickly as possible between the current renewable set up and our EU 2020 renewable targets. The aim of holding several auctions, rather than assigning projects in one auction, is to leave the possibility of taking advantage of falling technology costs.

The Celtic Interconnector

Amid worries of electricity supply in the looming shadow of brexit, there is one star contender for solving supply issues, and that is the Celtic Interconnector. The proposal would see Ireland directly linked to the French electricity grid and allow Ireland to both import and export enough energy to potentially supply 450,000 homes.

Such a scheme could also result in a reduction of electricity prices for Irish consumers, who already pay some of the highest rates in Europe. A decision on whether to go ahead with the project or not, will be announced by 2021 latest. Should it go ahead, we could expect to be linked to France by 2025.