Irish Renewables: All at Sea?


This is an image of one of the world first commercial wavefarms, opened in Portugal in 2008. Yes it shut down due to technical problems in 2009, but that is normal with any technology in its infancy and not a big surprise given the engineering challenges faced with construction at sea.

Those fun people at the IPPC have just issued a nice piece of bedside reading (not). It is the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. The full report is not yet available (it will be published on May 31st, 2011), but a summary can be downloaded here:

As usual there is lots of jargon. However, its headline story was covered very well by the Irish Times on Wednesday May 11th. The report’s authors estimate that renewables broadly defined met close to 13% of world primary energy demand in 2008 (and most of this was fairly bog standard biomass). Yet less than 2.5 per cent of the globally available technical potential has so far been used…leaving a whopping 97 per cent out there for our kids to play with. In fact the report is a little more nuanced in that it uses scenario techniques (more on those in another post perhaps). The most conservative scenarios suggest that 27 per cent of world energy demand by 2050 could be met by renewables, and the most optimistic scenario suggested as much as 77 per cent could be met. Maybe if one was to suggest that we could meet about a third of our energy needs from renewables fairly handily, that would seem a sensible finding.

The question now has to be what are waiting for?

Well, as it turns out ‘official Ireland’ is quite happy to wait and ignore findings like this.

Consider the reactionary views of our own ESRI, where John Fitzgerald recently advocated in a Report on Irish Energy Policy that the Irish government withdraw funding from renewables. You can read his report here:

What madness!

Bizarrely this ‘review of Irish energy policy’ reads more like a hatchet job against the very weak Irish renewables sector. Based on one academic publication, Fitzgerald concludes that the REFIT scheme, which offers guaranteed prices to renewable suppliers feeding into the grid, should be discontinued except maybe for offshore windfarms. Even more oddly he advocates that we basically put all our eggs in one basket: offshore wind: “what is important is that this renewable electricity be concentrated on onshore wind, which is likely to be dramatically less expensive than offshore wind or ocean energy for the foreseeable future.” (Fitzgearld, 2011, p.32)

Maybe the ESRI are reasonable economists, but this is in fact some kind of technological prediction, for which they are simply not qualified. The truth is we don’t know much about future energy costs, so investing in a range of technologies would seems more sensible. Moreover, what is missed here is the potential to develop a wider renewable industry. Instead this limp statement is offered: “it could make sense to provide some limited public support for research in this area out of the national research budget …..However, the scale of this support should recognise that there is no guarantee that new developments in this field as a result of the research in Ireland will benefit Ireland. Consequently, this area of research should compete for state funds with other similar types of basic research.” (Fitzgearld, 2011, p.32).

With experts like these Ireland need have no worries: we’ll be still burning peat on the fire by 2050, or more likely just buying our electricity from the British grid via inter-connector.

Surely, the whole point is that any rational state with our geography would invest a certain amount of money long-term in things like wave (or better perhaps termed ‘ocean energy’) and innovative wind energy, knowing full well that such investment represents a long-shot bet. Nothing may come of it, just like the Portuguese wave farm that was closed down. On the other hand Denmark consistently invested private and public funds in wind turbines during the 1980s when oil prices dropped and they were ridiculed for that. Now they enjoy a leading position in the global wind energy business.

For a country like Ireland, wave is arguably the new wind (Chinese wind turbine manufacturer have taken quite the lead there so we’re way too late to make much of an impact). Wave energy is still at the early stages of viability, and it remains far from certain that technically robust and price competitive solutions will emerge, despite what some ocean energy gurus say. Indeed a nice chart at page 10 of the IPPC Report summary shows that ocean energy costs measured in US cents per Kw/hour remain well above the crucial 10 cents per Kw/h threshold, and really they would want to be getting closer to the 5-7 cents marker. That seems a while away. But the whole point should be surely to take a bet on that industry now.

We’ve more chance of winning the Eurovision!


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