Tom O’Brien writes for the Sunday Independent, 17th November 2019

No rational person in the energy industry needs to be convinced about climate change. I was in Iceland last month and I saw the impact climate change is having on the landscape. It is truly devastating. But you don’t have to go to Iceland to see the impact of climate change.

 

One August evening in 2008, as my wife and I attended the All-Ireland quarter final between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park, an enormous downpour hit us. It became so dark that summer afternoon that the floodlights were turned on at 5pm. When we got back to our home in north Dublin, we were greeted with an apocalyptic sight: our small housing estate had turned into a lake. Our home was destroyed, and our car was bobbing up and down in the driveway.

Dublin City Council told us we had experienced a one-in-150-year weather event. But we were flooded again the next year, and the year after that. A housing estate that had been around since the 1940s and had never been flooded before was flooded three times in three consecutive years. These are no longer one-in-150-year events.

So I need no convincing: the way we live, and in particular how we produce and consume our energy, must change. How we lead and implement that change, however, should be anchored by certain realities and grounded by basic facts.

There is a saying: “No one person can whistle a symphony; it takes a whole orchestra to play one.” That is particularly true when one thinks about the orchestra needed to deliver Ireland’s daily energy needs. Ireland’s energy orchestra has a wind section, of course. The renewables sector provides up to 30pc of our energy needs, when the wind is blowing. We have a string section pulling it all together in Gas Networks Ireland, the ESB and EirGrid, running and maintaining the infrastructure and networks that we need to keep the lights on and our homes warm.

The percussion section is ably provided by companies such as Bord Gáis, Naturgy and SSE, supplying and selling power to our homes and businesses. In the background, however, in the brass section, are the less sexy instruments of the orchestra – certainly the less popular instruments right now – like the trumpets of natural gas and the bass trombones of oil.

At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, Ireland will continue to need these instruments.

Gas is of key strategic importance to this country. It accounts for around 30pc of Ireland’s total energy mix and over 50pc of our electricity generation right now.

The Irish Academy of Engineering predicts that by 2028, gas will still account for over 90pc of Ireland’s electricity at times of very low renewable generation. The Government’s own draft National Energy and Climate Plan projects that in 2040, natural gas could be supplying 46pc of our energy needs.

These numbers aren’t surprising. At the moment, renewables do not have anything like what is needed to supply all of Ireland’s energy needs. That’s why natural gas is so important; it’s there to take up the slack when wind isn’t in a position to provide the power.

Natural gas and renewables go hand in hand. At times last month, wind’s contribution to power generation was less than 1pc. Gas filled the gap.

According to Gas Networks Ireland, gas accounted for more than 90pc of electricity generation during the summer of 2018. EirGrid estimates that our electricity demand could grow by as much as 57pc over the next 10 years. So all these numbers tell us something: natural gas will continue to play a fundamental role in the delivery of energy needs for many years to come.

The only remaining question is whether this gas is produced in Ireland, or whether it is imported. Over the past year or so, during debates on the Climate Emergency Bill, mainstream political parties were supporting proposals that would have effectively shut down Ireland’s domestic oil and gas industry. This would not have reduced our oil and gas consumption by one iota.

It would simply have meant the gas we need would have to be imported over long distances, in the process producing higher emissions and costing much more than using local production.

The Bill, by banning all future gas exploration, would also have rendered the Corrib facility a mothballed asset on the west coast of Ireland. This would be a terrible outcome for a country as dependent as we are on energy imports.

The Corrib facility is a hugely valuable and strategically important asset. It has produced up to 60pc of Ireland’s daily gas requirements over the past number of years, and it is estimated that it will contribute up to €6bn to Ireland’s GDP over its lifetime.

It seems nonsensical to consciously decide to lock ourselves into a future where we are 100pc reliant on countries like Russia or Qatar for our energy needs. I’m not aware of any other country in the world choosing to forsake its energy sovereignty in this way.

There isn’t an orchestra in the world that can perform well without a good conductor. We need Government to be that conductor. Government needs to give the energy industry clear, consistent direction. To do this, it must listen to the orchestra and appreciate every section of it.

It should provide the support, departmental resources and clear regulatory framework needed to unlock the true potential of Ireland’s energy future, whether it lies in offshore wind, liquefied natural gas, carbon capture or gas storage.

We should be careful that in our clamour to assuage the loudest voices, we don’t end up adopting energy policies that are bad for Ireland and no good for climate emissions either.

One day, new technologies and new discoveries will free us from our reliance on fossil fuels. Until then, it will be better for our country and our climate if we use Irish gas instead of imports.

Tom O’Brien is managing director of Nephin Energy. Nephin Energy acquired Shell’s interest in the Corrib gas field last year, making Nephin Ireland’s largest domestic producer of natural gas

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