Good intentions and vested interests make bad bedfellows. There is no doubt that plans for renewables came from a well meaning place.

We are facing global warming, according to many scientists, and much of it caused by our actions.  Even if we weren’t there are many good reasons to reduce our emissions and become less dependent on oil and gas, after all it will eventually run out! In addition, the rise of despots such as Putin in Russia and al-Assad in Syria, make our leaders distinctly nervous about reliable supplies.

In Ireland, the push for renewables is within the remit of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) who are quite clear that there are three goals in energy policy; energy security, cost competitiveness and protection of the environment through the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Their report ‘Renewable Energy in Ireland 2012’ published February 2014 analysed the contribution of renewables to Ireland’s energy requirements from 1990 to 2012. What they fail to mention however, is that the current chairman Brendan Halligan also sits on the board of, and owns shares in Mainstream Renewables, one of the largest wind farms developers in the state!

Our energy consumption and emissions come from of three sources – heat, transport and electricity, electricity accounting for about 20% of overall energy use. It is important to keep in mind that when we discuss wind energy it is usually within the context of electricity use only and not the 80% of energy used by heat and transport. Another massive contributor to GHG emissions is agriculture at 29% of all emissions, with methane from flatulent cattle causing half of this. SEAI do not consider this source of GHG as it’s not within their remit and rather difficult to control, I would have thought!!

The EPA have stated that Ireland will fail to meet it’s 2020 targets to reduce GHG emissions leaving it open to prosecution and fines by  the European Court of Justice. The EPA believe that emissions from agriculture and transport are particularly difficult for Ireland to tackle and that we need a ‘rapid decarbonisation of and transport systems’.

Because of the problems with reducing GHGs from agriculture and transport, Ireland goes beyond EU requirements and sets a target of producing 40% of our electricity by 2020 from renewable sources. Therein lies the problem.

It sounds like a good idea. We can’t make up the targets in one sector so we’ll over-compensate in another, namely in our electricity system. We’ve lots of wind up there doing nothing, let’s use it! Unfortunately, as discussed in my previous blog the devil is in the detail. The detail being, wind energy needs a permanent source of backup power.

Stay with me for the next bit! Just one short paragraph!

The SEAI were delighted to announce that renewables in all sectors, including wind have avoided 3.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Considering the type of generation displaced by wind, mainly gas with some coal, wind energy has saved 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 and approximately €250 million in fossil fuels imports. Wind is responsible for 61% of these savings, that is €150 million in fuel imports and 1.9 million tonnes in CO2. These seem at first glance like massive savings but lets look at the context.



Still impressed?

So the problem is, that despite massive investment and destruction of much of our countryside, we are not saving any significant amounts of CO2 or fuel imports. By adding more wind power to the system, as incentivised by our Irish government and the EU, the law of diminishing returns will apply. The more wind in the system, the more back up power required which will run increasingly inefficiently and will destabilise the electricity grid. Less and less fuel and CO2 will be saved per unit of electricity produced by wind.

In addition, this report clearly states that: ‘ ignores plant used to meet the associated reserve requirements from renewables. These open cycle plants (OCT) will typically have lower efficiency and generate increased CO2 and NO2 emissions compared with combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT)’. Here they are referring to two different types of gas plant; combined cycle which is the cleaner type and open cycle which is quicker reacting but dirtier. This means that the CO2 savings are actually even less than the 2.6%.

In my previous blog, I also mentioned the increase in diesel fired generators, which are very dirty but very quick to turn on and off, therefore suitable to match intermittent wind energy. The SEAI report does not refer to these.

We do not know at what point increasing wind in the system will actually cause an increase in CO2. We do not know how much wind the grid can take without serious destabilisation. We do not know the amount or mix of back up generating plant will be required to balance intermittent wind. We do not know how much CO2 these back up plants will produce. We do not know how much grid, pylon and substation reinforcement will be needed.

Why? Because amazingly, in Ireland, no such analysis has been done!

By Paula Byrne.