Ireland Risks Sleepwalking into Energy Obscurity says Chamber

Thomas Mc Hugh, Director of Public Affairs at Cork Chamber, comments on the need for greater ambition and urgency in response to climate crisis.

The recent COP26 conference has rightly focussed attention on climate action and a globally co-ordinated climate response yet there is real danger that Ireland will falter. Cork Chamber calls for greater ambition and crisis worthy urgency in the Government response to the climate crisis.
Government plans such as the Climate Action Plan and National Development Plan raise the level of renewable-sourced electricity from 70% to 80% to power transport and industry. However, at present power generation can barely keep with demand and an energy supply risk looms due to increased demand and closure of older, fossil fuel plants. Meanwhile Equinor, a global energy supermajor and partner in a $2.3bn, 1.5GW Irish offshore wind project has exited the market owing to dissatisfaction with Ireland's regulatory and planning regime for offshore wind. The capital investment, green energy and jobs will now presumably find a home elsewhere on the global market.
The renewable energy sector arguably has the same potential as the pharma sector when it was first established in the Southwest region in the 1970s. Pharma delivered a shot in the arm for Ireland's economy at a pivotal time and delivered a multi-generational return while transforming the domestic economy. The pharma sector was supported by Government policy to the extent that it put Ireland on the global map. It would not be acceptable if any of the leading multinational corporations in the life sciences or technology sectors exited the Irish market citing inhospitable Government policy. Equally, the hugely significant exit of Equinor cannot be repeated - Government must respond quickly and with focus.
To be proactive, a step change in renewables is urgently required. We know our ocean is an asset that is unique in the richness of it’s potential for the generation of renewable energy in the form of electricity and green hydrogen created by floating offshore wind.
Regulatory conditions should support and empower renewable energy projects as a form of foreign direct investment that helps us meet our climate change targets. We cannot lament energy insecurity and climate change when we have such a potent solution in our hands and business cannot be resigned to a future of carbon tax rises, or accept any excuse for energy insecurity.
It is essential that grid capacity does not place a ceiling on our renewable energy potential. 5GW of offshore is to welcomed but it is representative only of the low hanging fruit in a sector that is now utterly proven in the UK. The Irish Sea is home to hundreds of wind turbines, but currently only an aging handful are Irish.

Green hydrogen, arguably the apex of renewable energy has a role to play that is nothing short of game changing in terms of unlocking Irelands wasted energy potential. Green hydrogen can store energy from offshore wind for use domestically and for export, effectively removing the ceiling for growth in Irish energy production. The sector requires a national policy and generation target and fit for purpose regulation.

The Maritime Area Planning Bill has the scope to remove regulatory and administrative challenges. A new Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA) can support development in Ireland’s maritime area and to enable the consenting processes for foreshore licences, foreshore leases and planning permissions. It must be urgently resourced to deliver on the backlog of applicants that currently have nowhere to turn. Renewables targets must be increased and the RESS expanded with specific provisions for floating offshore, hydrogen and anaerobic digestion. The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications and EirGrid must be fully resourced to ensure transmission assets are available, and available at the pace with which the private sector can deliver.

A progressive regime for renewables presents an unparalleled opportunity for Cork and Ireland – to foster ethical energy solutions, a resilient economy and address the climate crisis. There are opportunities for business and employment in supply chain, technical innovation, circular economy, clean mobility, green and blue infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and the bioeconomy.

It’s time to put the right regulatory and legislative framework, policies, timeframes, investment and supports in place which offer more business certainty and clarity. Instead of scraping over our 2030 and 2050 climate commitments, Ireland can be a leader and compete in a global economy. We can step up to our rightful place on renewables.

The Equinor debacle cannot be repeated and should not be forgotten. Without any malice, there is every potential that Ireland will sleepwalk into obscurity on energy, as global capital finds a home elsewhere What if the equivalent story played out in a better-established sector? In a climate crisis, renewable energy should be progressed with all the urgency that was so successfully brought to bear at the beginning of the pandemic.