Comment: Climate announcements mean nothing without action

Here are five key ways to make decarbonised energy systems a reality

Ireland generates a huge amount of wind energy, but we will have enough energy to supply other countries while boosting our economy by developing off-shore wind farms

I have worked in the energy sector for over 15 years – both in industry and as an academic. My work has focused on addressing the challenges facing this industry, particularly as we accelerate the decarbonisation of our energy systems. For those of us with an interest in decarbonisation and climate issues, last Tuesday’s announcement of the Climate Action Bill is welcome. But announcements mean nothing without action.

The Bill includes ambitious targets, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent by 2030; and Ireland becoming carbon neutral by no later than 2050. Some say these targets are not ambitious enough, that we need to be more aggressive with our approach to have a real impact. But, in reality, are these targets achievable? How do we work now towards decarbonisation?

As a starting point, here are five areas I think hold great potential for Ireland in helping to make decarbonised energy systems a reality.

1. Harnessing offshore wind for economic benefit

Ireland is already leading the way in terms of using large amounts of renewable energy within an electricity system. There is also massive potential for offshore wind development in our coastal waters, which has the potential to decarbonise Ireland’s energy while also contributing to the energy needs of other countries, bringing economic benefit to Ireland. There are questions about how best to make use of this energy and how to transport it, with “supergrids” and the production of green hydrogen among the solutions – but the potential benefit to Ireland in terms of jobs and investment here is clear.

2. Electrifying heating and transport

We have really struggled as a country to decarbonise our heating and transport energy to date. To address this, the Climate Action Plan sets out clear targets for the adoption of electric vehicles and heat pumps. Over the coming years, in order to meet these targets, we will be adding a lot more of these devices to the electricity network. They will help support our climate goals, but will also significantly increase demand for electricity. More renewable energy will need to be produced to meet this increased demand in a sustainable way.

3. Stable and reliable electricity supply

As we connect more devices to the electricity system, we need to maintain a focus on the actual infrastructure of the system and how it is managed and operated. At UCD Energy Institute, much of our research has focused on the dynamics of the power system – examining what is happening on the wires when electricity is generated, transported and used. The power system is complex; and changes to how it is used need to be well understood and researched to keep our electricity supply stable and reliable.

4. Strengthening our European connections

This week, Eamon Ryan, the Minster for the Environment, pointed to Ireland’s wind resources as a key advantage in achieving the measures laid out in the Climate Bill. If we are to capitalise on this opportunity, we need to ensure we are well connected with the rest of Europe, but we also need to ensure the right coordination and market frameworks are in place. Brexit has implications for the efficiency of the European electricity market, so it is vital we focus on improving Ireland’s standing as an energy provider. This can be achieved through increased interconnection with Europe and Britain or through finding alternative ways to transport energy, such as hydrogen.

5. Engaging the ‘energy citizen’

We’ve heard a lot about the “energy citizen” lately – and the need to bring the consumer along with climate action developments. The minister this week made particular reference to people being “part of the solution” in reaching our targets. If we are truly to meet our decarbonisation targets, we need individuals to be involved in a way that works for them. It needs to be easy for people to choose more climate-friendly options, such as electric vehicles or heat pumps; or to choose public transport, cycling or walking over driving.

Furthermore, changes to the energy industry, such as moving from fossil fuel to renewable generation, need to take into account the communities that are affected and ensure a just transition for all. A good example of this is the closure of peat generation in the Midlands and the need to ensure alternative employment and economic opportunities in the area, as well as creating a new sense of identity for communities.

The support of the “energy citizen” and the wider community is a central part of the decarbonisation journey. In the coming months and years, we must continue to conduct research into these aspects of energy transitions, working with communities, stakeholders and industry to identify solutions that will ultimately lead to a better future for our citizens, communities and planet.

Bringing all of these aspects together is really important, but perhaps most important is political leadership. The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will take place in Glasgow this November, and a strong political agreement will provide an important foundation on which to build the energy transition. UCD Energy Institute will be leading conversations in the run up to COP26 through the Dublin Climate Dialogues conference taking place on May 19 and 20, which we are proudly supporting. The virtual, global conference, chaired by renewable energy developer Eddie O’Connor, will bring together policy makers and opinion formers ahead of COP26 and will present practical actions to accelerate the transition to becoming carbon neutral.

Professor Andrew Keane is director of UCD Energy Institute