Climate and environment report

Significant infrastructure investment required to achieve Ireland’s energy and climate targets

Early planning and investment will be important for assets which can be re-purposed and brought into line with the trajectory required to achieve Ireland’s stated ambition of achieving net zero emissions from Irish society by 2050, writes Phil Hemmingway, Head of Research and Technology Policy at SEAI.

In cases where legacy infrastructure assets are not compatible with those trajectories, difficult decisions need to be made, the earlier the better from a decarbonisation perspective. It is similarly important that new investments do not perpetuate a ‘carbon lock-in’ effect. Indeed, the European Commission recently announced a review of the regulations which govern placement on the list of Projects of Common Interest – infrastructure projects which interconnect electricity, smart grids, gas, oil and CO2 networks across the EU. As a result, projects currently on the list may need to be re-assessed against the objectives of the of the European Green Deal and the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal specifically.

Closer to home, Ireland’s Public Spending Code has been revised with the aim of ensuring that public capital investment projects avoid expenditure which locks in long-term fossil fuel consumption. All public capital projects are now required to perform an emissions lifecycle assessment as part of their economic appraisal. Economic evaluation of such potential projects uses what is known as the shadow price of carbon, which is derived from the estimated cost of abatement of future emissions associated with a particular project. The intended trajectory of the shadow price over the coming years, rising from 32 per tonne in 2020, to 265 per tonne by 2050, demonstrates the scale of change foreseen.

In May 2019, Ireland and the UK became the first two countries in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Publication of the Government of Ireland Climate Action Plan in June 2019 represents the focal point of the Irish Government’s response to the declared climate emergency. The Plan was developed in the context of extreme weather events such as flooding, drought and extreme snow fall recently experienced in Ireland, and climate-driven shifts relating to desertification, rising sea levels, displaced population, profound challenges to the natural world, and economic and social disruption abroad. It predicts that we are close to a tipping point where these impacts will sharply worsen.

Arising from Ireland’s role in supplying meat and dairy products across Europe and the world, agriculture makes up 32 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, three times the European average. However, in all other major sectors (electricity, buildings, transport and waste management) Ireland is also at the wrong end of the scale in terms of carbon emissions per head of population.

The Climate Action Plan aims to put Ireland on a pathway to 2030 which is consistent with achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It defines a roadmap and a coherent set of policy actions to achieve this goal. Over 180 actions in the plan cover areas including: carbon pricing; electricity; enterprise; built environment; transport; agriculture, forestry and land use; waste and the circular economy; the public sector; Ireland’s international action on climate breakdown; citizen engagement; community leadership; just transition; and adaptation.

Major targets outlined in the Plan include energy upgrades to at least 500,000 homes; installation of at least 600,000 heat pumps; growing the number of electric vehicles to one million by 2030; achieving 70 per cent renewables on the electricity grid by 2030; development of a large-scale offshore-energy sector; enhanced electricity interconnection; and a phase-out of electricity generation from coal and peat.

Ireland’s foremost experts in the areas of energy research and policymaking gathered at the inaugural National Energy Research and Policy Conference in November 2019 to discuss how best to achieve these targets. The conference, co-hosted by SEAI and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, focussed on transformation of Ireland’s electricity sector. The 2020 edition will focus on the large-scale decarbonisation of Ireland’s heat sector. One issue discussed in detail at the 2019 conference was the importance of developing hard and soft infrastructure in order to underpin the achievement of government energy and climate policy targets.

Two of the more significant pieces of legacy hard infrastructure are the electricity and gas grids. Government policy points towards significant increases in the electrification of the heat and transport sectors. There is also a commitment to discontinue generation of electricity generation fuelled by coal and peat and plans for significant expansion of the quantity of renewable electricity on the grid. As such it is relatively intuitive to understand how the electricity grid can be aligned with Ireland’s decarbonisation trajectory. To enable this goal, significant investment will be required both in the legacy grid and new development projects.

There is a need to further investigate emerging technologies such as hydrogen, biomethane and anaerobic digestion and to instigate a move away from use of fossil-fuel gas.

The national gas grid too is a significant piece of legacy energy infrastructure. There is a need to further investigate emerging technologies such as hydrogen, biomethane and anaerobic digestion and to instigate a move away from use of fossil-fuel gas. Major efforts are underway on these topics, including projects funded by the SEAI National Energy Research, Development & Demonstration Funding Programme.

Soft infrastructure is an important part of enabling the change required and includes considerations such as communities, supply chains and skills. Soft infrastructure often receives less attention, but is of critical importance to Ireland’s decarbonisation. The SEAI Sustainable Energy Community network comprises more than 350 communities around Ireland who support Ireland’s energy transition. It is imperative that communities are fully engaged and consulted on an ongoing basis, particularly in the context of large-scale energy infrastructure developments.

Developing the necessary supply chain to underpin Ireland’s decarbonisation is another vitally important aspect of soft infrastructure. Early analysis of the requirements has the added bonus of highlighting potential enterprise development opportunities which will arise during Ireland’s decarbonisation journey. SEAI is currently undertaking a full analysis of energy sector decarbonisation supply chain opportunities to inform this.

A third essential piece of the jigsaw is skills development. A Government expert group is currently examining the skills needs of enterprises associated with Ireland’s low carbon transition. It is likely that considerable additional education and training programmes will be required to provide a sufficient number of appropriately skilled workers to meet energy and climate policy goals.

Ireland faces a fundamental transformation of its entire energy system over the coming decades. Careful consideration of infrastructural requirements will be a key enabler of this transformation.

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