As the push for renewable energy takes on the dimensions of a new industrial revolution, SHANE HULGRAINE investigates where the pitfalls may lie on the road to a greener tomorrow.
Energy practices, which once were the lifeblood of industry, have almost suddenly been rendered irresponsible and unsustainable. The massive overhaul of energy generation that lies ahead is unprecedented and the move to wholly sustainable practices has the significance of a modern industrial revolution.
The adoption of renewable energies is a huge step. It represents a collective admission that our impact on the earth is greater than once conceded, but it also signals a potentially new way of life. The past few years alone have seen Irish households cut back on domestic waste dramatically, separating waste according to category, and adapting cleaner practices – which seemed inconceivable only 10 years ago.
Corporate reputations now hinge on carbon targets or heeding waste levels, while the energy efficiency scheme for households and businesses in Budget 2011 reflects a push towards a greener, smarter economy. Or so we are told.
Renewable energy is the buzz word in the public lexicon, and sleek and silent wind farms, ocean energy (of which supplies are abundant) projects, heavily researched biomass plants, solar energy schemes, biogas and more dominate the news, with new investments cropping up around the country in every sector.
But where is all of this development leading to? We are told that building renewable energy infrastructure in Ireland is key to our economic success, but what happens once that system is in place? How then do we build and maintain for the future, while considering which is the best renewable energy practice?
Peter Baillie, CEO, Energia, the Irish wind energy firm with large-scale renewable energy projects both north and south of the border, believes that the key to creating a sustainable energy system in Ireland lies with a mix of renewable sources.
"Biogas is useful where it can deal with waste products from industries like poultry, for example, and there are others; biomass has its place, too. The problem is that these are small scale and have limited potential. There are other areas, like solar and offshore wind.
"Offshore wind has good potential off the coast of Ireland but it is much more expensive than onshore wind. In a climate where we are looking at minimising the cost of producing renewable energy, then that has to come into the equation. Solar has almost treble the cost per megawatt (MW) of output than onshore wind," says Baillie.
He believes there is need to rethink renewable investments and that, in these austere times, a more calculated approach over which industry suits best can result in greater output and longer-term achievements.
"Where the more expensive technologies are getting built, they only get built on the back of a much higher support mechanism, which is ultimately being paid for by the consumer. We must question the affordability, as well as the longer terms objective of reducing carbon and sustainability ourselves.
"In terms of tackling climate change, the Government approach is based around the national renewable energy action plan, and really begs the question ‘who is monitoring that?’" says Baillie.
Government climate and energy targets
The Government’s national renewable energy action plan sets out to meet new climate and energy targets, which include a 20pc reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 20pc energy efficiency and 20pc of the European Union’s energy consumption to come from renewable energy sources by 2020.
According to the plan, Ireland must achieve its individual target across the heat, transport and electricity sectors – something which Ballie believes we can achieve by becoming more frugal and keeping a close watch on our energy consumption in what he calls ‘smart concepts’.
"That means focusing much more on reducing demand, making what we produce more effective. That area is like the smart grid – it is about giving customer real-time signals as to their energy consumption.
"Therefore, changing their consumption in an interactive way, we can reduce the demand making more of what we have. We can have more localised power generation and microwind turbines; allowing people to generate power in parts of the network that traditionally did not happen."
Indeed, if we are to achieve smarter, more tenable energy practices in Ireland, we not only have to manage and control our environment, but we must also keep an eye on the smaller picture too, believes Roy Horgan, director of SolarPrint.
"What has to happen is for technologies to come together and better manage your infrastructure or grid. It’s impossible to tie down, but it is the ability to manage and control the environment and use the information to reduce our energy consumption. That in my mind is a smart grid.
"If everyone knows what is going on in their building or micro-chasm and reduces their consumption, then the grid actually becomes smart because people are starting to manage it. The opposite is when people want energy generation, like solar or wind, and put that on it," he says.
Horgan, whose company specialises in providing light conversion technologies and changing the way solar photovoltaics can be used, believes that a relevant focus has become frayed in the sphere. He asserts that a more viable, accepting and pragmatic approach would better serve the renewables industry.
"Some companies are approaching renewable energy properly and some are not. Some are trying to do too much – trying to create new sciences, trying to literally change the world overnight. It’s too far.
"What you have to do is look at the main problems. We consume far too much energy unnecessarily, it costs too much money. You have to have solutions that make sense in terms of payback. Once this stacks up you have a business."
The fact that the industry will take a more definite shape as more time and money is invested in it is unavoidable and to some extent we must wait and see what transpires. However, developments, such as our recent signing of a memorandum of understanding to join a Europewide super grid, emphasises the future importance placed on domestic production and export of power, and is a key indicator of what our policy makers expect to drive our economy in future.
Green sector jobs
Projects such as An tSlí Ghlas – The Green Way, which has forecast 10,000 jobs over the next five years in the green sector, will create "an internationally recognised green economic zone and position Ireland as a leader in the world’s most exciting and rapidly growing sector", according to Tony Boyle, chairman of the Steering Committee for An tSlí Ghlas, which could solidify Ireland as green capital in Europe.
While the jury is still out on whether this green push will succeed, either economically or environmentally, the broader benefits of renewable energy are relevant as we struggle to both curtail carbon use as well as expenditure in the lead up to a better future.
Environmentally, the benefits are uncertain but worth pursuing, as the telltale signs of climate change already encroach our lives and threaten our future.