Blog: Huge potential in Programme for Government

19 Jun 2020

The proposed Programme for Government published earlier this week has the potential to rapidly accelerate the development of renewable energy and the decarbonisation of Ireland’s energy supply writes IWEA Head of Public Affairs Justin Moran.

Across Ireland members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party are debating the merits of, Our Shared Future, the proposed Programme for Government agreed by the various party leaderships earlier this week.

The activists in all three parties now have their say and it is they, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the party, who will decide by next Friday whether to accept the deal or to reject it.

Each party, every member, will be assessing the programme against a variety of priorities, objectives and ideologies and it is right they should do so.

But from the perspective of the renewable energy industry what this Programme for Government represents is nothing less than a revolution in how we could develop and construct the renewable energy we need to not simply hit our 2030 targets but to go beyond that to a net-zero Irish energy system.

With this Programme for Government achieving an average 7 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases becomes, for the first time, something that is genuinely possible – though by no means guaranteed.

A plan for 70by30

The programme builds on the commitment set out in the Climate Action Plan by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton TD to deliver 70 per cent of the country’s electricity from renewables by 2030.

While this set out a vision for a future powered by renewable electricity it has become clear since it was launched that the authors underestimated the challenges in producing – across multiple departments and State agencies – a plan that would enable industry to deliver.

Deadlines in the Climate Action Plan have been missed and there are growing concerns that the planning and grid challenges facing developers will not be overcome in time.

The Programme for Government commits to:

“Produce a whole-of-government plan setting out how we will deliver at least 70% renewable electricity by 2030 and how we will develop the necessary skills base, supply chains, legislation, and infrastructure to enable it.”

It goes on to specifically identify the main challenges faced in developing renewable energy where it commits to:

“make recommendations for how the deployment of renewable electricity can be speeded up, for example the provision and permissioning of grid connections”.

The Programme also states that it will build on the first Renewable Electricity Support Scheme auction, which will be held next month, to hold annual auctions after that with one for offshore wind in 2021.

Next month's auction will provide a route to market for the first new onshore wind farms of the 2020s. Over the next ten years we need to connect an additional 4,000 MW of onshore wind capacity in Ireland so there is little time to waste and, as onshore wind continues to be the cheapest source of renewable energy, the more we connect the better for the consumer.

It is hoped that the commitment to finalise the Wind Energy Guidelines will also be a positive one. The programme indicates that the recent consultation will be key to shaping the final version of the guidelines and this may mean the noise limits, exposed as deeply scientifically flawed, will be amended.

Offshore wind

Arguably it is in the area of offshore wind energy that the programme has its most exciting potential. The plan envisages 5 GW of offshore wind off Ireland’s eastern and southern coasts by the end of the decade and proposes a longer term plan to develop the enormous potential of our wind resources off the west coast of the country.

Eventually, the aim is to have 30 GW of floating wind power in the Atlantic Ocean, enough to not just meet Ireland’s power demands but also to make a contribution to Europe’s energy needs.

It is hard to understate the level of ambition contained in these proposals. The commitments send a clear signal to the European offshore renewable industry that this would be a Government that will refuse to stay a laggard on climate action.

Delivering all of this will be challenging. It will require deploying an array of new technologies, many of them identified in the programme, new interconnectors and a more rapid move to electrification and the use of wind power to produce hydrogen.

All of these are identified in the programme and it is clear that there is an understanding of the scale of the task though the omission of a reference to grid development is unfortunate. The Irish transmission system is finding it a growing challenge to cope with the rising amounts of available renewable energy.

EirGrid, SONI and ESBN have shown themselves to be innovative world leaders in integrating renewables but, as new wind and solar farms connect, particularly offshore, the need to build more grid infrastructure will become acute and the omission of a reference to the need for a stronger grid is one of the few disappointments in the programme.

Efficiency and other gains

While the 70by30 plan and offshore wind might be the main positives for renewable energy there are several other proposals that will also help decarbonise our energy system.

There is a welcome focus on microgeneration and supporting the development of community energy initiatives. These are important not simply for the amount they can contribute to powering our homes and businesses but also in changing how we think and understand the role of energy in our lives, to change people from passive consumers to active participants in driving the energy transition.

An ambitious National Energy Efficiency Plan is also proposed and this has been a key missing piece of the Irish energy jigsaw until now. We need to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewables but we also need to use less energy.

Even at 70 per cent renewable electricity in 2030 that still means we will still rely on fossil fuels for the remainder. The more we can do to reduce energy consumption or to use our power more efficiently the better for the environment and for consumers.

Conclusion

In some ways, Ireland is in a fortunate position as we look towards our 2030 renewable electricity targets.

We have the resources in wind and solar to easily provide the volume of power required and far more. We have the skills, the experience and the financial resources to plan, develop, construct and connect the projects we need.

We have lacked two things – a robust policy framework to support the development of renewable energy and political will – that, for the first time, appear to be in this Programme for Government.