Ireland readies for the green revolution

Ireland readies for the green revolution

William Walsh, CEO, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, outlines Ireland’s sustainability goals and challenges the entire country will face as it renovates its social and industrial infrastructure to lower carbon emissions and transition to sustainable practices


What are Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s (SEAI’s) key mandates?

We are aligned with Ireland’s Climate Action Plan, which is itself driven by EU requirements. Ireland’s fourth Climate Action Plan was launched in 2019 and has been revised by the government to align to our 7 percent per annum emissions reduction target by 2030 to hit our 50 percent reduction over the decade. The level of energy efficiency necessary to contribute to lowering energy related carbon emissions is ambitious, both from a country perspective and from an EU perspective. It requires a corresponding massive shift in behaviours, motivations and incentives for new investments. We need a paradigm shift across our entire social environment and infrastructure and a major step change in our approaches and pace of activity. It is likely that new regulations will be required in many areas later in the decade.


What is Ireland doing to develop its renewables sector to support the reduction of carbon emissions?

Under the European Renewable Energy Directive, Ireland had targets for 16 percent of its energy to come from renewables by 2020, split across electricity, heat and transport. The success story from an Irish standpoint has undoubtedly been electricity. Around 40 percent of the electricity that we produced in 2020 came from renewables. Ireland, through our systems operators, is a world leader in incorporating variable renewables such as wind into the grid. By 2030, we are aiming for 70 percent, which is a significant target for Ireland. Significant opportunities exist for offshore renewable projects that will help us hit our targets. Ireland is a country with 10 times its landmass offshore. We have abundant wind resources, particularly off our western coast. Our current challenge is getting a consenting system in place to ensure that operators can enter the market and develop these offshore resources. Another significant challenge is having storage facilities and the appropriate grid to bring energy to shore and deploy it when it is needed.

The government recently launched the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) for solar, onshore and offshore wind and other renewable technologies. The auctions have gone particularly well. The initial RESS auction secured a lot in relation to grid-connected solar, which Ireland is currently lacking. Some research points to opportunities combining solar and offshore wind generation. The ideal mix is solar at times of more significant daylight and wind in the winter when it blows harder. These can both be accessed offshore.


What changes are being made to modernize the transportation sector?

In terms of sectors, Ireland’s transport releases the highest amount of carbon emissions. Our target for 2020 was 10 percent renewable energy for the transportation sector, which we are likely to hit. The challenge we have is that much of the heavy lifting has been done by biofuels and there is limited potential left to increase the biofuel mix without exploring drop-in biofuels such as hydrotreated vegetable oil. Our real goal is to electrify transport, which is considerably more difficult than mixing biofuels. We had more than 20,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in 2020, but this must be increased rapidly. SEAI is promoting EVs to private motorists, commercial fleets and light-goods vehicles. There is a growing appetite. Even with the challenges of COVID, EV sales volumes grew in 2020 relative to 2019 while other car sales dropped. The tipping point is approaching if not already upon us. We have an ambitious target of 125,000 EVs on the road by 2025 and almost 1 million by 2030. It will be a real challenge. However, with changes coming from manufacturers and government regulations, I am confident we can achieve our goals.


How can Ireland retrofit its residential infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions?

Heating is another challenging area. Ireland ranks in the bottom two of the EU for our performance in renewable heat. Our target for 2020 was 12 percent heat generated from renewable and we hit only 6.3 percent. We need to make up for this shortfall. Current renewable heating comes mostly from solid biomass from the wood processing industry used in some industrial processes and limited amounts of other biomass waste products used in cement manufacturing and food processing. In recent years, we have seen strong growth in the use of ambient energy through heat pumps. This is due mainly to a change in domestic building regulations that requires new homes to achieve an A-building energy rating. One significant way of achieving this is through heat pumps. Additionally, SEAI has a support scheme for renewable heat that provides a contribution to every kilowatt hour generated by sustainable sources.

In October 2020, SEAI was designated as the national retrofit delivery body. Nationally we must upgrade 500,000 homes to a B2 energy rating by 2030. While SEAI programmes delivered over 17,000 home upgrades last year, only around 4,000 were at a B2 level. We have a target of 8,000 more homes this year. However, those numbers need to ramp up to 55,000 per annum by 2024. The real challenge is that each one of those 55,000 homes requires an individual investment decision by homeowners. It is a far more difficult consumer decision than an EV because the investment is often seen as invisible. We are working to figure out how to change people’s thinking and make them want to get their home upgraded.

A second challenge lies in the work itself. At present we have around 3,000 people working in the retrofit industry doing home upgrades. We need that to be around 30,000 and very quickly. The supply chain is important. We need to make sure that workers are trained and skilled. If the heat pump is installed and it does not work, people will quickly turn against the technology. Quality is important for successfully achieving our organisational and national targets.

A third challenge is unlocking smart financing for homeowners and reducing interest rates that people are charged for investing in retrofits. Currently interest rates are too high to encourage the debt route for retrofitting. However, we have some early market movers like the Irish post office who offer banking and finance options. Ireland has paired with one of the larger electricity providers to offer a full one-stop-shop option with financing and project management services. SEAI is keen to grow and promote these one-stop-shops. We need to unlock cheap financing and identify the appropriate intervention by the government in terms of grants offered. We will pay particular attention to governance.


How is SEAI working with businesses to retrofit industrial infrastructure and practices?

Business decarbonisation is another aspect of our work. We developed several programs to drive energy efficiency in companies. We have a scheme where we partner with businesses and take them from the start of their capital investment process right to the end. We bring them through a structured process to find and maximise energy efficiencies so that those efficiencies are locked in from day one. We then support their investment efforts through a grant. We have already successfully supported more than a hundred large businesses and industrial sites through this process.

We put a big focus on energy management and continuous energy performance improvements within commercial and industrial operations. We profile and promote the best of what has happened to our networks and facilitate people to communicate with each other to figure out what might work in their specific sector, be it tourism, retail, services or food. We have significant challenges with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as they are often without a lot of capital. It can take time to figure out how we can help improve their energy efficiency. We have tried to simplify and streamline this through our online Energy Academy. We have also invested heavily in reaching these client SMEs through their representative organisations and chambers of commerce.


Is the SEAI working with the public sector to lower energy consumption?

One of the energy efficiency targets for the public sector was a 33 percent reduction in energy usage by 2020 from 2008. This was set as an exemplar, substantially ahead of the 20 percent target for the economy as a whole. The good news is we are on target. We have worked closely with public services and they are fully committed to taking the necessary steps for climate action change. We have set a target for a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 for the public sector. A big piece of that will be the public buildings. We have 6,000 public buildings in Ireland, mainly schools, hospitals and state buildings. We must introduce significant energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in all of these.


What is being done to promote energy efficiency at a community and individual level?

Outside of the business and public sectors, we are actively building community engagement in the country’s sustainable energy transition. There are more than 500 sustainable energy communities in our rapidly expanding network. As with our business network, this is a powerful way to motivate and educate through shared experience and learnings. However, as always financial support is a key enabler. Through our Communities Energy Grant Scheme, a project co-ordinator engages with communities and partners, such as the local football club, community halls and the supermarket. All come together as a collective project to deliver energy efficiency works. Key to its success is the aggregation of properties and works. This is important to drive community engagement and a sense of a national movement, rather than individual homeowners doing works on their own home. The 500 communities that SEAI manages are on the path to becoming more energy efficient and energy conscious. Other renewable works can be added on top of this, such as placing solar panels on the roofs of local schools.

How can companies take advantage of the government’s push for sustainability?

It is imperative that redevelopment after COVID is green. From a business perspective, there are massive opportunities to develop and deliver technologies we need to address these issues. Ireland has a lot of innovative companies with ground-breaking solutions. They can partner with some of the best companies in the world to develop Irish-specific heat pumps or solar solutions.

Will Brexit have an impact on SEAI’s goals for net zero carbon emissions and sustainable energy transition?

It has been communicated that the single electricity market between us and Northern Ireland will continue to operate and energy trade between Great Britain and Ireland will continue as well, albeit with some additional mechanisms in place. From an SEAI perspective, Brexit will have implications on the retrofit supply chain into Ireland from Great Britain and any reliance on the UK-Ireland land bridge. Because construction has been closed since the start of the year, it has been difficult to assess the impact. We are monitoring to determine the level of program disruption that may arise. We will continue to monitor the preparedness of Irish supply chain actors and support their efforts in any way we can. There may also be implications in our role monitoring energy using products arriving in the country. We will need to be vigilant to ensure continued compliance with energy efficiency standards as markets diverge over time.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted Ireland’s resiliency and pointed out necessary societal changes?

COVID has demonstrated that we can pull together and deliver scientific advancements that were previously thought impossible. That is a significant opportunity. One of SEAI’s functions is to monitor energy usage in Ireland. Through an exercise with the Irish Environmental Protection Agency, we estimated a 5.9 percent carbon emission reduction during 2020 even during the pandemic. COVID has highlighted what challenges we need to overcome and what societal shifts are necessary to reach our goals.


How is SEAI using Ireland’s international connections to meet its green targets?

We have strong links with the International Energy Agency and to several Concerted Action activities in the EU. Many member states are encountering similar challenges as Ireland. We work very closely with these countries to figure out what works to drive the decarbonisation of our energy systems. The International Energy Agency is a wonderful organization that allows the sharing of international perspectives in relation to technology. Our continued and increased engagement with them will be important.

We have relatively limited but successful engagement and involvement with the U.S., particularly in relation to advanced technologies such as wave and tidal energy. We have a progressive relationship with U.S. academia and the government. It is fantastic to see the U.S. re-engage with the Paris Agreement. They are a world leader, and it is absolutely vital they be part of the conversation and play their part on the team.

Time is running out. We will be remembered as the generation who either did or did not take action. We cannot afford to miss on any policy options or decisions. Every country has its challenges, but they are not alone in those challenges. International co-operation and sharing information are vital for our future.