Ireland -- the nation where St. Patrick’s Day celebrations originated -- is reaching for a much bigger green opportunity.
“There’s a long-term global trend away from carbon intensity and away from fossil fuels and towards greater efficiency and toward the greater use of renewables,” Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) Chief Operations Officer Brian Motherway explained. “We have very significant renewable energy resources,” Motherway said. “As the technologies for capturing that energy become mature, we believe it’s a very significant opportunity.”
SEAI has just released the last three of six of energy roadmaps targeting 2050. They cover what Ireland expects to be its mid-century strengths. Roadmaps on bioenergy, ocean energy, and residential energy efficiency were released in 2010. The recent ones target the smart grid, wind energy, and electric vehicles.
Ireland’s European Union (EU)-mandated targets for renewables, emissions reductions, and efficiency “focus on 2020,” Motherway said. SEAI wanted to look at “the longer-term agenda,” because “energy systems work in those long-term time frames. Investments now in infrastructure and technology will be with us well beyond 2020.”
Targeting 2020, Motherway added, distracts from the opportunity that renewables and efficiency offer. “In the longer-term focus, we’re not just addressing our own domestic energy needs” but also exploring the delivery of “technologies and energy itself from Ireland to other countries.” The value of electricity generated by Ireland’s wind by 2050, Motherway said, “could be fifteen billion euros beyond our own use.”
Almost 90 percent of Ireland’s present energy “is imported fossil fuels,” Motherway said, and “the only indigenous energy resource we have in abundance is renewables.”
The roadmaps, Motherway said, “are not predictions of the future. The modeling can only be so precise in those time frames. They’re more about vision” and about “where the technology and the systems are going.”
The newest roadmaps, focusing on the smart grid, wind energy and electric vehicles, were deliberately chosen “as a set,” Motherway said, because “they tell an integrated story about the future of the electricity system.”
Ireland anticipates “very high levels of wind energy penetration,” he explained. But that will require “what people are calling the smart grid” to “manage an intermittent resource” and “integrate supply- and demand-side considerations.” Electric vehicles, he added, “become a balancing and storage mechanism. You can charge electric vehicles at night when wind is available but demand is low and then you can effectively use that energy during the day.”
The most interesting single roadmap, Motherway said, centers on wind. “If we exploit the wind we know is available on and offshore,” he explained, “we’ll have effectively moved to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035 or so.” Beyond that, he added, Ireland’s wind resource can provide an exportable commodity.
The wave energy roadmap, Motherway said, shows Ireland’s resource is “rich” but “the technology is still relatively young. We think it might be another two or three years before you start to see full-scale prototypes in the water.” Wave energy will not, Motherway thinks, “be producing any significant amount of power until at least the end of this decade.” It will, he said, achieve “significant scale” the following decade.
Financial incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles now in place have kicked off what Motherway described as a phase of “confidence and awareness” building. “From a zero base a few years ago,” he said, “there are now a few hundred electric vehicles on the road. In the next couple of years, that will grow to a few thousand.” But, he added, soon “we will look back and say this was the period where electric transport started to move into the mainstream and many people started to realize this technology was getting mature.”
According to the roadmaps, renewables will, by 2050, save Ireland €3.8 billion to €7.5 billion in direct fuel offsets. The transition to electric vehicles could cut Ireland’s yearly fossil fuel imports 50 percent and save Ireland €2.3 billion to €12.4 billion. Building a smart grid and associated technologies will provide 10,000-plus Irish jobs. Onshore and offshore wind could create 20,000-plus jobs and provide 2.5 percent of the EU’s electricity.
Following the European financial crisis and Ireland’s economic downturn, Motherway said, it has become “difficult to engage decision makers about decades away when they’re wondering about how to get to the end of the year.” But, he said, “the whole point of the roadmaps is to remind people that energy is a long-term issue.”
It costs more to borrow in Ireland now, so only the most appealing opportunities get funded, Motherway said. However, he added, “We have good, strong growth in the deployment of wind,” which affirms the value of Ireland’s resource.
“Some of the more emerging technologies,” Motherway said, “are struggling to get the investment they need, and that’s probably slowing their progress.” But, he added, there is still activity.
“The fact that the roadmaps exist at all is evidence that a lot of people in Ireland are now realizing that this whole area,” he said, offers “an opportunity for Ireland to mark itself out as a leader and therefore attract international investment.” One of the purposes of the roadmaps, he added, is to get the attention of international investors “looking for places to do business -- and looking for people to partner with -- to look at Ireland.”