We asked Irish energy experts and campaigners for their views on the EU’s draft proposal to label gas and nuclear as ‘green’ investments.
The European Commission has caused controversy this week with its draft proposal to label gas and nuclear energy as ‘green’ investments under certain conditions.
Under the new proposal, gas and nuclear energy projects could be included in the “taxonomy of environmentally sustainable economic activities”, allowing them to receive funding to help the EU meet its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Taking account of scientific advice and current technological progress, as well as varying transition challenges across Member States, the Commission considers there is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominantly renewable-based future,” the European Commission said in a statement on Saturday (1 January).
There has been mixed response to the proposal, which was issued on New Year’s Eve hours before an end-of-year deadline. Austria was critical of the plan and has threatened to sue the EU if the proposal is approved, but Irish EU commissioner Mairead McGuinness told The Irish Times that the plan is based on scientific evidence.
Dr Pádraig Lyons, head of group at the International Energy Research Centre (IERC), based at Cork’s Tyndall National Institute, said the new proposal seems “unambitious”, adding that the EU has an opportunity to show leadership on climate action, as other countries around the world could follow its guidelines.
Under the proposed taxonomy, gas power plants will qualify as green if they replace a more polluting fuel source such as coal, receive a construction permit before the end of 2030, and emit less than 270g of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour. There must also be a plan to switch to low-carbon gases by the end of 2035.
“They’re saying it needs to be able to convert to something like hydrogen, so that has potential,” Lyons told SiliconRepublic.com. “The number they’re using for gas is the problem I have – I don’t think it’s ambitious enough. Scientists in Sweden were proposing 100g per kilowatt hour. The limit of 270g could be a bit more stringent.
“These organisations are going to have access to capital anyway, but with green energy funding they will get ahead and push renewables out to an extent as well. If some of those green bonds go to a [gas] plant rather than supporting climate change, it goes in the short-term moving against them.”
‘The International Energy Agency has said nuclear energy can plan an important role in meeting the Paris Agreement targets, alongside other solutions’
– DR HANNAH DALY
University College Cork (UCC) lecturer Dr Hannah Daly said gas is a “grey area” as while it’s the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel “it is still responsible for a significant amount of global warming”.
Daly believes new capacity may be needed in the coming decade, but it’s important that these don’t become “stranded investments” as the EU moves to a zero-carbon power grid in the future.
“In Ireland, paradoxically, new gas-fired power plants are essential for meeting our 2030 climate targets for three reasons: to displace higher-emitting coal and oil power plants, to balance intermittent wind generation, and to serve growing electricity demands,” she said.
“It is the third case which is a cause for concern – if strongly growing electricity demand pushes up fossil fuel generation, carbon budgets will be very difficult to meet.”
But Theresa O’Donohoe of Futureproof Clare, a climate campaign group, said she is completely against the proposal.
“It’s wrong. Anyone who understands the severity or the precarious situation we’re in with climate change, I don’t know how they can make these sort of decisions and understand the gravity of the situation.”
Daly, who focuses on sustainable energy and energy systems modelling at UCC, believes it is necessary to consider nuclear power as it’s a low-carbon source of power generation.
“Even though the cost of nuclear is rising, while the cost of other low-carbon power sources like wind and solar has been falling, the speed of decarbonisation that is required means that countries cannot discount any established technology like nuclear, where it’s technically suitable.”
Germany and France have clashed over this part of the proposal, as Germany aims to switch off its remaining nuclear plants by the end of the year, while neighbouring France gets most of its energy requirements from nuclear energy.
“The International Energy Agency has said that nuclear energy can plan an important role in meeting the Paris Agreement targets, alongside other solutions,” Daly added.
While it may play a role in some countries, Lyons believes nuclear power is not a feasible option in Ireland due to the current size of power plants.
“A plant of about 2GW in Ireland would be bigger than anything else we have in the Irish State, it would be a weak point on the system. So the natural size of a plant in Ireland is about 1GW – you wouldn’t want any more because if you lose the plant you’d risk a blackout.”
Lyons noted that Rolls-Royce is currently developing smaller nuclear reactors, which could make it a feasible energy option for Ireland in the future. In 2020, less than 1pc of the country’s electricity came from nuclear energy imports, the Business Post reported.
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