The View from Ireland

Getting into government has been a mixed blessing for the Green Party of Ireland. It has meant coming in from the political hinterland, but has also been a test of their eco-credentials. Would they go the way of many formerly radical parties upon entering government and find themselves acquiescing on their principles? This must have been playing on the mind of John Gormley, Environment Minister, when he duly informed the electorate that he intended to outlaw energy-wasting light bulbs by the year 2009.

Ireland is not known for taking the lead on green issues so we were, not surprisingly, quite happy to see the Minister setting the standard. As Greenpeace recognized, this was going to be “the EU’s first ban on energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs.” Good news surely? Well the status of eco-trailblazers seemed to be under threat as the EU Commission sent mixed signals regarding a small problem the Minister had overlooked. The simple fact is that the ban contradicted an EU dictate which states that any product for sale in one member state is for sale in all other EU states.

This means that, theoretically, any shopkeeper in Ireland could bypass the ban and import the soon-to-be contraband light bulbs. This news proved to be perfect fodder for opposing political parties increasingly convinced of the naivety and ineptitude of the Greens. Joanna Tuffy, environment spokeswoman of the Labour Party, ridiculed the plan as “half-baked.” Tuffy has been all over this ban, and has been keen to stress the spectre of poisonous mercury contained in compact fluorescent light bulbs. This seems disingenuous. As environment spokeswoman for her party one would hope Joanna Tuffy would be aware of the minuscule amount of mercury contained in CFL’s (averaging 5 milligrams). The possibility of poisoning is quite small, and a quick look at EPA regulations suggests that cleaning up a broken CFL is not all that difficult. It is also expected that technological advances will help reduce the amount of mercury in CFLs over the coming years, and that a ban on incandescents will only further investment in even better lighting options.

It may have been such considerations that swayed Günter Verheugen, the vice-president of the European Commission, toward renewed support for Gormley’s plan. The exact details are still wanting. As Joanna Tuffy is all too aware the European Union is notorious for placing market concerns over all others, and whether the plan appeals enough to clamber over mountains of EU regulations governing internal markets is something we need to remain cautious about. A close look at the language of the Green Party press release reinforces this cautiousness: “The Green Party Leader and Environment Minister John Gormley TD announced today that he has received the European Commission's support for the plans to introduce minimum energy efficiency standards in Ireland for light bulbs from early next year.” This seems less bold than the original ‘ban on incandescent light bulbs’. It is a more nuanced announcement than before and so we need to keep a close eye on this issue.

This is not the only major green development occurring in Ireland at the moment. There is also a strong push toward renewables courtesy of Energy Minister Eamon Ryan, also of the Green Party. Before we touch on this issue it is important to note that the Green Party has disavowed the employment of nuclear energy for reaching emission reduction targets. In the ethos of the Green Party nuclear energy is not suitable for Ireland which goes some way to avoiding the entire issue. They have managed this with their “Ten reasons why nuclear power makes no sense for Ireland” report (PDF) which is, to be fair, one of the better examples of a considered, non-hysterical report by a green advocate group on the merits or demerits of nuclear power. Although sadly it does tailor to some clichés by positing that all too ridiculous notion that terrorists might fly a plane into a nuclear power station — an appeal not worthy of eco-thinkers.

All this does beg the question as to what the solution to Ireland’s energy demands, and necessary reductions in emissions, might be. A good place to turn for answers is the recent “All Island Grid Study” released this month on behalf of both governments, North and South. It is the first Irish study of its kind and it aimed to assess the…

… ability of the electrical power system and, as part of that, the transmission network (“the grid”) on the island of Ireland to absorb large amounts of electricity produced from renewable energy sources. The objective of this five part study is to assess the technical feasibility and the relative costs and benefits associated with various scenarios for increased shares of electricity sourced from renewable energy in the all island power system. -- All Island Grid Study Overview (PDF)
For a country that uses less than 10% of renewable energy for its needs such resources are everywhere. Ireland has traditionally depended on wind energy for its renewables, but it does have access to solar, geothermal and, especially, wave energy. To take advantage of these would be beneficial and so the report sets about contrasting six portfolios of renewable and conventional technologies in order to ascertain which one would prove the most beneficial and cost-effective. The report concluded that Ireland’s reduction targets are in fact conservative at 33% and that it is capable, with renewables, of generating closer to 42% of our energy needs by 2020 in this manner.

The real benefit would be a much-needed 25% reduction in C02 emissions. Whether the willpower exists as regards the shift remains to be seen, but the report has at least stressed the possibility. The potential renewed EU support for inefficient light bulbs is not our only good news. Eamon Ryan has decided to back up the conclusions of the grid report by establishing numerous renewable projects in the west of Ireland. The Minister intends to spend €26m on developing ocean energy in the area and all this is planned for the coming year:

  • €1m towards a world class, state-of-the-art National Ocean Energy facility in UCC. The Facility will now have an advanced wave basin for the development and testing of early ocean energy devices.
  • € 2m to support to develop a grid-connected wave energy test site at Annagh/French Point near Belmullet, Co. Mayo.
  • € 2m in grants this year under the Ocean Energy Prototype Fund. This will help developers to make their devices commercial.
  • The introduction, of a new feed-in-tariff under the REFIT scheme for wave energy of €220 per Megawatt Hour.
  • € 500,000 this year to establish an Ocean Energy Development Unit as part of Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI). Operating with the support and assistance of the Marine Institute, this unit will oversee the implementation of the initiative. -- Green Party Ireland
There certainly seems to be some impetus toward a renewable, ecologically friendly Ireland, but it is important to remember that Ireland has become a hugely consumer driven, energy intensive island over the past decade or so. The Minister has been careful to allay fears, and provide incentive by adding a ‘feed-in-tariff’ which means those who produce energy through wave energy are assured of some return. The package does make Ireland one of the foremost developers of ocean energy in the world, and it’s not entirely surprising given Ireland’s geographical position. The two counties which are most affected are Cork and Mayo which rest on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. As an investment it will be interesting to see whether it sparks a trend toward a renewable all-Ireland energy grid, but it’s an investment Ireland can’t afford to miss.

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  • Posted on Jan. 16, 2008. Listed in:

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