Five Degrees of Change

Noel Cunniffe: ‘We need a campaign for energy infrastructure like with electrification in the 1940s’

The chief executive of Wind Energy Ireland explains the policy and personal changes he would make for a greener world

Noel Cunniffe, chief executive of Wind Energy Ireland, says a speedy planning system is critical to delivering Ireland’s climate targets. Picture: Jeff Harvey

At the heart of most decarbonisation plans is electricity, and at the heart of decarbonising electricity in Ireland is wind power.

So while Noel Cunniffe’s job as chief executive of Wind Energy Ireland may at first appear to be a sectoral niche, it is one with ramifications that ripple out across our economy and society.

“There is never a boring day,” Cunniffe said.

As part of Five Degrees of Change, the Business Post’s energy and environment podcast sponsored by PwC, Cunniffe gave his three policy changes and two personal changes for a greener world.

POLICY: Prioritise renewable energy and electricity grid projects in the planning system

The planning system has long been highest on the list of concerns for renewables developers.

“It’s not great is the short summary,” Cunniffe said. “The planning system itself is really struggling to make decisions quickly on those [wind] projects. And that’s the biggest problem at the moment.

“We came through a situation from September 2022 to September 2023 when not a single wind project got planning permission from An Bord Pleanála, despite dozens of projects being with them at that time.”

Cunniffe said the need for a speedy planning system – one that processes not only renewable energy projects, but the grid reinforcements needed to support those projects – was critical to delivering the country’s climate targets.

Cunniffe highlighted that while the statutory guidelines for planning recommend 18 weeks for decisions, on average it had been taking more than 90 weeks for planning decisions to be made on wind projects in recent years.

But lately, things have begun to change and more projects are being approved. Cunniffe is hopeful that this change in pace may mean the bottlenecks in the system are beginning to free up.

“I think we are maybe seeing some of the benefits of the institutional changes that were made to An Bord Pleanála and the resourcing up of both the board and staff there, to get projects through,” he said.

“But we can’t risk a situation like that happening again,” he added.

PERSONAL: Using garden to maximise climate and biodiversity benefits

The scale of the biodiversity emergency, sometimes characterised as the earth’s sixth mass extinction event, can sometimes appear too big to do be able to do anything about on a personal level.

But when you consider there are over two million residential gardens in Ireland today of varying sizes and shapes, equating to about 359,000 acres, it quickly becomes obvious why a bit of biodiversity-conscious gardening can make a real difference.

“My wife is the real expert in this area, so a lot of the positive things we have done are thanks to her input,” Cunniffe said.

“We grow some of our own fruit and veg, which really helps educate the kids about cause and effect and planting and what happens if they don’t look after them . . . We also have bird feeders and a bird box we just put up, which we are really hoping our cat doesn’t find. And we also do No Mow May and rewild parts of our garden as well.”

Cunniffe said he had definitely noticed a difference in the animal life now appearing in his garden.

“From a broad point of view, the bird feeders are just thronged . . . We even have a pheasant that makes an appearance,” he said.

“From an insect point of view, the butterflies last year were incredible. We learnt a lot about the different names and types of butterflies from it and trying to teach my kids what is what . . . It brings a lot of colour and a lot of life to your garden, so I would encourage anyone to give it a go.”

POLICY: Create a national education and communications campaign on the need to reinforce our electricity grid

The electricity grid is basically the wires that move electricity around the country at high speeds, from a range of different power generators to households and businesses around Ireland.

“Building a really strong grid is vital for energy security and for economic growth so you can move power to be consumed by businesses and industry, and also from a climate perspective . . . because renewable energy is a much more dispersed source of energy,” Cunniffe said.

While the electricity grid, which is run by Eirgrid, is self-evidently a critical piece of national infrastructure, there has historically been quite a lot of local resistance to building out Ireland’s electricity grid.

“There were widespread grid strategies developed in the early 2000s that failed because as a society we didn’t grasp the value of them,” Cunniffe said.

Cunniffe said the scale of grid works that were now needed meant public acceptance was now a key strategic obstacle for reaching climate targets.

He suggested that we could learn a lot from the communications campaign launched by the state way back during the initial electrification of Ireland.

“There was a widespread campaign by the ESB in the 1940s called rural electrification, and ESB tried to convince people on the value of electricity. At the beginning of that, only a third of Ireland’s homes had electricity, but by the end of it, in the 1960s, about 99 per cent of homes had electricity. So a 20-year campaign electrified all of Ireland,” he said.

“We need to do this again.”

PERSONAL: Ensuring my new home and my wider family’s homes are as energy efficient as possible

Cunniffe is in the process of building his new house, and therefore has the rare opportunity to consider his new home’s energy use from the ground up.

“We are going to heat the house with an electric heat pump. We are hopefully going to have solar panels, but at very least it will be wired for solar panels so if we can’t afford them yet, we will be able to soon afterwards. And things like wiring the house so it’s ready for an electric vehicle are also in the plans,” he said.

Cunniffe said that modern building regulations were “excellent” when it comes to energy efficiency, meaning that by default the house would be very well insulated.

While Cunniffe admitted there can be additional upfront costs for add-ons like solar panels, there were also financial benefits in the long terms.

“You are really talking about a pay back period of 5-6 years before it is making a return for you and has paid itself off,” he said.

“I am not looking at it as an additional cost. I am looking at it as an investment in my future and my family’s future.”

POLICY: Develop a long-term energy demand strategy for Ireland to maximise the benefits of Ireland’s renewable energy

Much of the conversation about electricity demand has been negative in recent years, as demand has grown dramatically from the likes of data centres, and supply has not kept pace.

But Cunniffe would like to change the conversation around power demand, and begin to talk about a new energy demand strategy.

“We are one of the windiest countries on the planet. We have expertise when it comes to integrating renewables onto our grid. And we have one of the largest maritime areas in all of Europe, so the opportunity that presents for offshore wind is staggering,” Cunniffe said.

“We will have more renewable energy in 20 years than we know what to do with, unless we come up with a plan for using that energy.”

An energy demand policy therefore would meaning aligning the planned build-out of renewables in Ireland with a clean energy industrial policy.

“We need a plan around using renewable energy to maximise the benefits to Ireland. We can export some of that electricity through interconnectors, which will be important. But why not try to create products from renewable energy, and then export those products at a high value?” he said.

This could mean creating green hydrogen for difficult-to-decarbonise sectors, but most of all it will mean having a thriving economy of electrified industry, producing products through a near 100 per cent green power grid.

“It is a big opportunity for Ireland from an economic point of view,” Cunniffe said.