How energy economics is helping predict Ireland’s renewable energy future

17 Apr 2020

Dr Lisa Ryan, assistant professor in energy economics, UCD School of Economics. Image: Vincent Hoban/UCD

Dr Lisa Ryan of UCD and her colleagues are attempting to dive into the numbers behind Ireland’s push to become a renewables-led economy.

Behind every wind turbine or electric vehicle (EV) charging station installed anywhere in the world, you can be assured that a team of energy economists had a part to play in it.

If Ireland is to achieve the ambitious target of 1m EVs on the country’s roads by the end of the next decade, how many charging points would be needed? How much would it cost in State subsidies? In what timeframe would it be achievable?

These are the types of questions that Dr Lisa Ryan of University College Dublin (UCD) and its Energy Institute asks on a regular basis as an assistant professor in energy economics and as a co-lead of the institute’s EmPower project.

However, her interest in the economical side of renewables started in the world of cars, having previously worked as a policy analyst in the R&D division – in the area of emissions regulation – for German auto giant Volkswagen. Speaking with, Ryan said that while she was always interested in the environmental side of engineering, her frequent trips to the European Commission in Brussels really opened her eyes to the economic side of renewables and energy.

Ireland as ‘technology takers’

“If you presented something from the technical side, the economist would often come in with a winning argument using cost-benefit analysis and I just became very interested in the economics side of things. I decided then that I would go and do a PhD in environmental economics,” she said.

After returning to Ireland following her stints in Germany and the US, she realised that her home country was a real testing ground and research hub in the area of renewable electricity.

“When it comes to transport in Ireland, we’re ‘technology takers’ as we’re not going to be designing new cars,” Ryan said. “But renewable electricity is something that is domestic and has a lot of interesting questions around it … and our own energy security seemed to be a very interesting challenge.”

The area of energy economics certainly brings it own challenges, however, as she said that while many might think economics in general is just about the numbers, it also comes with the need to have technical knowledge as well.

“In Ireland, when it comes to energy economics, there are really only a few of us doing it,” she said. “But I think the Government has become quite aware of its value and the few of us working in it are working quite closely with the [Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment].”

Therefore, it’s Ryan’s job to make sure that when the Government goes to Brussels to negotiate climate action deals, politicians can have the modelling and numbers behind targets so they can know of any economic and societal consequences that may come down the line.

Simulation of EirGrid's national grid control centre with a person monitoring multiple screens.

Simulation of EirGrid’s national grid control centre. Image: EirGrid

An important connection

One revolutionary change to Ireland’s energy economy is set to be one of the biggest projects undertaken in the history of the State, spanning approximately 500km between Ireland and France. The €1bn Celtic Interconnector is a giant subsea electricity cable linking the Irish grid with the rest of Europe. Once completed, its 700MW capacity is expected to power 450,000 households.

According to Ryan, the project will be “significant” in securing Ireland’s energy security, as the county’s only existing interconnector links it to the recently ‘Brexited’ UK. For example, Denmark’s grid – often compared with Ireland’s due to its enormous wind resource – can access hydroelectricity from Scandinavia if there is little wind on a given day. Or, if there is too much wind, it can be exported to Norway and stored in the form of pumped hydroelectricity.

“We have nothing of that scale in Ireland,” Ryan said. “There will be days when we have a lot of [wind energy] on the network and little scope to export, apart from Great Britain.

“But with the Celtic Interconnector, that will hopefully increase the capacity of how we can export wind, especially as we increase our capacity with offshore wind generation. Similarly, we also want to be less and less dependent on fossil fuels, and we’ll be able to import [renewable electricity through the interconnector].”

This has become more pressing given Ireland’s Climate Action Plan announced last year, which has set a target for 70pc of the country’s electricity to be generated by renewables by 2030. Given that this is no easy task, Ryan and fellow researchers in the EmPower team at the UCD Energy Institute are scrutinising policies to figure out how we can reach these ambitious targets.

For example, network operators such as EirGrid would be eager to get predictions on where EV adoption is likely to be greatest under a variety of different policy scenarios.

Helping predict the future

“We’re developing an agent-based model where you’d be able to model the decision-making process of each consumer based on the cost and the [EV grant] policy,” she said. “With that information, you can scale it up to estimate how many and where a certain number of EVs are going to be distributed.”

This might mean, she said, that someone who has ready access to public transport links in Dublin perhaps shouldn’t get the same EV grant as someone in a very rural area in the country.

“The cool thing about [EmPower] is that while we’re specialised in the economic side in terms of trying to predict consumer behaviour, others are looking at very, very detailed technical constraints that not many people around the world are looking into,” Ryan said.

“It’s really bringing some quite innovative issues and will assist policy makers.”

One area which has garnered a lot of attention in recent years is the idea of community groups pooling solar resources together to provide electricity back into the national grid. In March, the Government launched the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme that will allow communities to bid into the scheme, generate their own electricity and get a slightly higher return rate on the investment.

According to Ryan, such efforts are important stepping stones to achieving Ireland’s 2030 renewables target.

“It’s not going to provide the vast majority of our electricity, but it’s a way of getting communities working together to have a future of sustainable energy systems,” she said.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic