Climate Action Plan 2021: All eyes on the energy sector

5 Nov 2021

Minister Eamon Ryan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the launch of the Climate Action Plan. Image: Julien Behal

The plan will see the electricity sector bear the heaviest brunt, with an emissions reduction target of up to 81pc.

Days after Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced Ireland’s climate commitments to world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow, the Government has published the long-awaited Climate Action Plan 2021 outlining the significant changes each sector faces in the €125bn scheme.

The plan will see Ireland reduce its overall emissions by 7pc each year, ultimately reaching a 51pc reduction by 2030 and setting the country on a path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050. “We do not believe or accept, as some would have it, that it is too late,” Martin told COP26 on Tuesday.

With almost 200 actions set out in the Climate Action Plan, each sector has received different target ranges for emissions reductions, with electricity bearing the heaviest brunt at up to 81pc. The target for agriculture is up to 30pc, enterprise up to 41pc, construction and housing up to 56pc, and transport up to 50pc.

Data centres and pressure on the grid

Emissions reduction in the electricity sector is coupled with the need to ramp up its power generated for transport and others to meet their emissions targets. “Decarbonising electricity is the cornerstone of the plan, as it enables the decarbonisation of other sectors, in particular heat and transport,” said Prof Andrew Keane, director of UCD’s Energy Institute.

“This will in turn lead to increased demand on our electricity system,” he added. “The electricity target of up to 80pc from renewable sources is extremely challenging and will require urgent action with stakeholders coming together.”

Overall, the Climate Action Plan requires Ireland’s electricity sector to reduce its emissions to the equivalent of up to 5m tonnes of carbon dioxide, down from the 10.1m that it emitted in 2018. However, it is forecast that demand for electricity will simultaneously grow by up to 50pc over the next decade, largely driven by “new large energy users, many of which are data centres”.

This rise in demand for electricity from all quarters may push the Government to halt the speedy development of data centres in Ireland and see the coal burning Moneypoint power plant in Co Clare continue to operate beyond its scheduled closure in 2025.

The Climate Action Plan states that Ireland’s policies on data centre development will be reviewed in the context of this increased pressure on electricity. “The forecast growth of data centres clearly represents a challenge to Ireland’s emissions targets,” the plan states.

According to the Irish Times, State-run grid operator EirGrid has agreed to connect data centres that demand up to 1,800MW of electricity to “a system where peak demand is around 5,000MW”. It has received applications from data centres for an additional 2,000MW and is obliged by current legislation to meet this demand.

Last month, as the Government debated halting construction of data centres to relieve pressure on the grid, Irish entrepreneur and Cool Planet CEO Norman Crowley said that data centres could be “part of the solution” to the energy crisis in Ireland by switching to generators and battery storage during peak times.

In all, the Climate Action Plan poses a “significant step up in ambition” for the electricity sector, which will require around 5,000 MW of conventional generation capacity in 2030, of which 2,000 MW is likely to be new capacity constructed in the coming years.

Wind ready to ‘lead the way’

Developments in the wind energy sector come with the news that energy giant Equinor is pulling out of a €2bn wind energy project with ESB in Moneypoint. The Norwegian state energy company formerly known as Statoil blamed delays in the planning process for its decision, according to The Irish Times.

Noel Cunniffe, CEO of Wind Energy Ireland, the representative body for the Irish wind energy industry, said that this decision underlines the need to reform Ireland’s regulatory framework.

“We are not reforming Ireland’s planning and regulatory framework quickly enough to develop the offshore wind we will need to meet the targets in the Climate Action Plan,” he said. “This is leading to a lack of confidence in the industry and our international supply chain that Government must address.”

However, he said that the sector was ready to “lead the way” in helping generate 80pc renewable electricity by 2030 and establish a zero-carbon electricity system by 2035.

“We have large, and growing, pipelines of onshore and offshore wind energy projects. With the right planning system and a strong electricity grid we will deliver the electricity targets in the Climate Action Plan,” he said.

‘Cannot afford uncertainty’

Meanwhile, the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) has welcomed the plan for its ambition but warned that it must be backed by action and its success will depend on the pace of its delivery, especially for the up to 81pc target for the electricity sector.

“Achieving this target will require a strong contribution from solar,” said ISEA CEO Conall Bolger. “While this plan sets a target of 1.5 to 2.5GW for solar energy this underestimates the potential of the sector. ISEA estimate Ireland could deliver 6GW of solar this decade if the right conditions are provided.”

Stephen Prendiville, EY Ireland’s head of sustainability, said that he was impressed by how the comprehensive plan was framed as a document subject to annual review, with “lots to digest” in its more than 200 pages.

“We’re eagerly awaiting the annex that is noted to contain the implementation, timing and owners of each of the 475 actions outlined,” Prendiville said.

Bolger added that of 18 actions outlined for the electricity sector in the 2019 Climate Action Plan, only three had been substantially completed to date. For this reason, he said that it was disappointing to see that the current plan lacks clear timelines.

“We have already seen how projects can become delayed or shelved indefinitely. The climate emergency cannot afford any uncertainty so a detailed implementation plan should be the next step for the Government.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic