Dermot Byrne’s Presidential Address 2016-2017

Dermot Byrne’s Presidential Address 2016-2017

26 April 2017 at 10:25

Presidential Address 2016-2017 by Dermot Byrne, Chartered Engineer

On 29 September 2016, our President Dermot Byrne, MEng Sc, CEng, FIEI, first delivered the annual Engineers Ireland Presidential Address to a full auditorium here at our offices in Clyde Road.  Dermot has since travelled to our ROI, Northern Ireland and GB regional branches in recent months to deliver this Address including in London at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) on 15 March 2017. 

His topic: Ireland's Energy Challenge - A Personal Perspective.  Dermot’s address is given below.

Ireland's Energy Challenge - A Personal Perspective

Presidential Address 2016-17

Dermot Byrne M.Eng.Sc., C. Eng., F.I.E.I.

29th September 2016

[Introductory remarks]

My chosen topic this evening is Ireland's Energy Challenge.  I have chosen this topic in part, in large part, because I have spent over 40 years working in this area, but also because it continues to surprise and fascinate me, and because it has such a central, if somewhat taken-for-granted, role in all our lives, our economy, and in our society.

In this year of rememberance, I'm going to start into the topic by going back to 1916, to the then President of this institution throughout that year of upheaval, Mark Ruddle.  Mark was Dublin City Electrical Engineer from the mid-1890's until he retired in 1919, with responsibility for electricity generation and distribution in the city.

Because he held the role of President for 2 years (1915 to 1917), Mark Ruddle gave his address in November 1915.   In his address he makes the point  (and I quote):

 "If things had been normal, I might have been tempted to point out to you the important place electrical engineering has taken in the world's work; how, by bridging time and space, and by enabling us to make fuller use of the materials and energy available, it has increased the efficiency of individuals and society, both mentally and physically." 

He goes on to state, however that: " the times have changed with a vengeance, and that this vast upheaval which is shaking the foundations of civilisation and engrossing the attention of all humanity will not pass away and leave things as they were.  We shall find ourselves in a new world after the war, faced with new conditions and with a very different outlook upon our surroundings".

So this address 100 years ago was very focused on the war effort, and the role of engineering - in what was deemed to be a War of Engineers - in bringing about military victory.  But more importantly he was looking beyond the end of the war to a very much altered landscape, and the need for all to begin to prepare and plan  - even then in the middle of hostilities - for that future.  In this regard, Ruddle reflected in his address on a number of major socio-economic themes such as the need to address the skirmishes between Capital and Labour, and to find the appropriate balance between the two; and the concept of a Living Wage for the least efficient worker, which in his view must include some provision for the enjoyment of life.  Coming so soon after the great lockout of 1913, these are quite progressive reflections, but perhaps they were informed by his experience and observations during that particularly difficult time. 

Another major consideration was a concern in a post-war world that British manufacturing capacity might lag behind that of Germany, and the need to counter German industrial domination;  little did he know that, in a few short years and under the leadership of a young engineer and future president of the institution, the new state, having gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, would entrust the development of the Shannon Scheme to the German company Siemens-Schuckert.  That young engineer was of course Thomas McLoughlin.

Looking back to that time in 1916, the transition that has taken place in every aspect of human endeavour is truly remarkable.  In Ireland, the transition from a traditional rural subsistence economy to the thriving first world economy that we now experience and take for granted, was paralleled, and underpinned by, a transition in the energy system that powers our economy and our society.  We had the development of the Shannon Scheme already mentioned, and also the establishment of a national utility , the ESB, to manage the output from the scheme and to develop and manage the total electricity supply for the State.  During the 40's and 50's we had the further harnessing of our hydro resources and the development of an indigenous peat industry.  In the 60's, as the economy opened up and emerged from stagnation, oil became the prominent fuel.  In response to the oil crises in the 70's, we had a major push to diversify out of oil into natural gas and coal, such that by 1990 oil was reduced to 5% of primary energy source for electricity, from a figure of 65% a decade before.  

These developments through the 20th century are well recorded in the addresses of a number of Past Presidents such as Bob Cuffe and John Lang, in the transactions of this institution, and in the book by my former boss and colleague the late Cecil O'Riordan, entitled ' Development of Ireland's Power System 1927 to 1997'.  This book was developed and published by EirGrid, and as an aside, if I can suggest to my former colleagues in EirGrid, it would be great to see this brought up to date.

But perhaps the greatest energy transition that took place during the last century was that of rural electrification, in terms of impact on peoples' lives, on the rural economy and on society as a whole.

This energy transition is well documented from a technical perspective in the book 'The Quiet Revolution' by the late Michael Shiel.  More recently, in fact just a week or so ago, a collection of stories on the rural electrification experience from a social and cultural perspective was published. This book is entitled 'Then There was Light', and was edited by my good friend Joe Kearney.  One story I particularly liked relates to a man named Pat Varley who lived on the shores of Lough Corrib in Mayo.  He was an ardent GAA supporter, and he listened to the 1950 and 1951 All-Ireland finals - both of which were won by Mayo - on the old style battery operated radio.  He thought it would be a 'mighty event' to have the electric radio installed for the next All-Ireland final (clearly hoping for another Mayo win) and so that he could hear the golden voice of Micheál O'Hehir in all its glory.  Wherever he is, he's still waiting!  Maybe this will be his year. 

It is clear from reading these stories that electrification was not universally welcomed at the time.  For example, the fact that improved illumination would highlight physical defect was not overlooked.  One elderly farmer who had two daughters of marriageable age, but who were not blessed with film star looks, was overheard to say "We'd better get rid of them two wans before the 'lectric light comes".

Joe Kearney himself writes that his grandfather stoutly resisted electrification, partly because he feared that ' if we're all connected up to one power source, all some madman has to do is to drop a bomb on Shannon and we'll all be blown up in our own beds'!

However what really shines out from these stories is that transformational moment when the light was first switched on in villages and houses throughout the country, captured powerfully in a poem by Phil Lynch called 'Changing Light', the last line of which read:

I flicked the magic switch

Outside, the dusk turned instantly to dark

Inside, the light would never be the same.

The reason I'm looking back over the last century, is to focus in on this notion of societal transformation, and the transitions in our energy system - how we access and use energy for commerce, transport, heating etc. - that enable such transformations to happen.  I want to highlight these transitions, because as we face into the remaining 80 years of this century we are, I believe, facing into another major societal transformation,  the outcome of which is far from certain, and which will be shaped by how we respond - through mitigation and adaptation - to the challenge of Climate Change.

The reality of the challenge, and the existential threat, posed by Climate Change is, I believe, beyond question.  The Fifth Assessment Report provided by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2014 stated that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer globally than any preceding decade since 1850. The IPCC has also stated that “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and eco-systems”.

Evidence is emerging in Ireland of the impacts of climate change in relation to extreme weather events and ecosystem changes. Storms such as those experienced in 2014, which previously would have been considered “1 in 100 year” events, are now coming more frequently. Earlier this year we witnessed the devastation that flooding caused, flooding that is only expected to get worse as our climate changes. Globally, this is the third year running to register record temperatures.  In parts of East Africa, Climate Change in conjunction with El Nino has put over 20m people at risk over last year and this year.  For those pastoralists living in the lowlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, extreme heat means that the first to go are the animals - the goats and sheep - on which they depend for their livelihood.  After that they are totally dependent on food aid, which thankfully this year has been better mobilised than in 1985.  World-wide, the insurance industry has woken up to this new reality and have recognised that Climate Change has the potential to make a nonsense of their risk models

This is all going to get worse, unless collectively we get to grips with the challenge and begin seriously to address it.  On a positive note this process has started:  At the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, Ireland, along with 194 other countries, adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.  The agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

What this requires, as everybody here knows, is that globally we reduce to zero the accumulation of additional GHG into the atmosphere - in other words we 'stop filling the baloon'; and if possible and when technology allows, we start taking GHG out of the atmosphere - we start to 'deflate the baloon'.  This is going to take time - measured in decades if not generations.  The question which then arises is ' Have we enough time?'   Or put it another way, can we deliver the societal transformation and underpinning energy transition quickly enough to limit global warming to the 1.5 to 2°C range which is deemed to be acceptable?   That is the fundamental question I want to address tonight.  The speed at which the energy transition to a low carbon future takes place is a critical consideration, and if action is not taken soon it may be too late.  As one commentator has stated 'by the time humanity may come to fully realise how much they need to shift to low-carbon forms of energy, they will have passed the point of no return'.

So, what can we learn from previous transitions that might help us in thinking about 'Ireland's Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future', as the government's energy White Paper is called.  The conventional wisdom is that such transitions are slow, due to the lock-in effect of very large investments in assets and infrastructure.  Well, to pick just a few:

·         The major step forward represented by the Shannon scheme and the establishment of a national utility arguably took just 10 years, from the time that Thomas McLoughlin joined the firm of Siemens Schuckert.

·         Rural electrification, from its beginnings in 1946 (70 years ago this year) took just 20 years to reach the 80% completion mark.  It took another 10 to 15 years for the remaining 'ditherers, stragglers and backsliders' - to use Joe Kearney's phrase - to be completed.

·         In transport, how do we measure the transition from horse to automobile?  Some commentators take 1916 as a starting point when volume production of the Model-T started, and estimate a transition time of from 20 to 30 years.  This depends of course on whether we are talking about city or country.

·         More recent transitions include the paradigm shift from a large, national, vertically-integrated utility to a competitive, deregulated industry (15 years);  the transition to a regional wholesale electricity market underpinned by the Moyle and East West Interconnection (15 years); and of course the rapid rise in renewables in electricity supply to reach 40% by 2020, just 13 years after the target was set.

·         Globally, the literature on energy transitions mirrors Ireland's experience in many respects.  Examples include the French transition to nuclear power which saw a total of 56 reactors constructed in a 15 year period from 1974 to 1989 under the 'Messmer Plan';  In China, the Ministry of Agriculture oversaw the installation of 185 million improved cookstoves over the 15 year period from 1983 to 1998, bringing significant improvements to the lives of over a half billion people in rural areas.

What I take from this is that energy transitions can happen quickly - in the region of 15 years or so where there is centralised decision-making and implementation, and somewhat longer at 20 to 30 years where there is a reliance on consumer behavioural change and adoption of new technologies.  Deciding factors here include:

·         availability of the enabling technology;  

·          a burning platform to change;  

·         clear customer benefits;

·         and clear policy direction and implementation.

Okay, so we have looked at past energy transitions and the factors that impact on their speed of completion.  Looking forward now, what are those energy transitions that have to take place, and how quickly, if we are to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.

Electricity Supply Sector

These are firstly the transition to zero carbon in our electricity supply.  In reality this transition is already well underway, kick-started by the 2007 Energy White Paper (Delivering a Sustainable Energy Future for Ireland).  The setting of a target for renewables, initially 33% but subsequently increased to 40% of total electricity supply, had the effect of galvanising the industry - EirGrid, ESB Networks, developers and the CER - to pull out all the stops, overcome all barriers, and critically, invest billions of euros.  We are now above 25% with a real prospect of achieving the 40% by 2020.  It should not and cannot stop there.

Further down the road, certainly before 2030, coal and peat-fired generation will cease, taking two very large carbon emitters out of the equation.

A combination of the drive for end-use efficiency and the shift to a services economy means that the link between GDP and load growth has effectively been broken.  Nevertheless there will be load growth, driven by developments such as Data Centres and the electrification of the heating and transport sectors. 

So where will new generation sources come from?  Costs of wind and solar power are coming down, and the technical challenges associated with lack of system inertia are being addressed.  In the absence of further high-volume energy storage, a combination of interconnection and low load factor gas will be used to manage intermittency. Biomass will certainly be part of the mix. 

In the longer term is there a future for nuclear power in Ireland?  Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, the recent White Paper avoided the issue by simply stating that 'Nuclear power generation is currently prohibited by legislation'.   Understandable, because we know that debate on this tends to be highly emotive and highly politically charged.

For my part, I believe that the global challenge of Climate Change requires a global response, and part of that global response must include nuclear energy at scale.  The reality is that, as of today, 30 countries worldwide are operating 444 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 63 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries. Nuclear power plants provide about 10% of the world's electricity production, and in the EU that number is just short of 30%.  I welcome the recent UK decision on Hinkley Point as representing a vote of confidence in nuclear power as an essential part of a global portfolio of energy sources.

The technology here is not standing still.  There is already a lot of research and development work underway in new fission reactor technologies, in enhancing safety across the full nuclear power value chain, and in the development of new and smaller modular reactor concepts.  A particular ongoing focus is the development of sustainable solutions for the management of radioactive waste.  In the longer term, fusion technology is seen as a potentially attractive energy solution for clean and large scale electricity generation towards the end of this century. 

For Ireland, I believe that at some point in the future, as the transition to a low carbon energy system gathers momentum, it is conceivable that nuclear power could become an attractive option.  However, for this to be considered a realistic policy option, the following would need to have happened:

·         Next generation fission reactors (such as Generation – IV reactors) would need to have established a record of successful commercial and safe operation, and would need to be available in sizes appropriate to a relatively small country such as Ireland.

·         Sustainable and proven solutions for the management of fissile materials and radioactive waste would need to be available.

·         Demonstrable public support, based on a detailed understanding of the benefits and risks within an overall policy context, would need to be evident.

This latter requirement will be the most difficult of all, but it will not happen until we begin to have a proper grown up debate on the issues.

So, to summarise on the electricity supply sector, I believe that we have made a great start, and that the ambition to get to zero carbon is entirely achievable even with the technologies available today, provided we stay the course.

But of course, electricity supply represents only about 20% of the carbon emissions from the energy sector.  Of greater importance at this stage are the heating and transport sectors - representing 21% and 26% of non-ETS GHG emissions respectively.  Due to their scale and the lack of any significant progress heretofore.  We really need to get serious about these sectors.  So what are the prospects?

Heating Sector

Taking the heating sector first:  the number of residential homes in Ireland is about 1.7 million, and they account for 44% of final thermal energy use, even greater than industry at 35%.  First and foremost we must increase the energy efficiency of these homes through a process of deep retrofit, and then replace their heating systems with low carbon heating systems. The SEAI estimates that a sum of €35 billion will be required over 35 years to make the existing housing stock low carbon by 2050, at an average cost of €20,000 per retrofit. This requires investment decisions to be made by consumers; as the White Paper says: "the success of energy efficiency depends on the response of consumers.  Ultimately it will be decisions by individuals that will make houses warmer, businesses more competitive, and public services more cost efficient."   Low carbon heating systems are increasingly becoming available, supplied either through the electricity or gas grids, evolving over time to zero carbon as the electricity and gas grids themselves decarbonise.  I believe that people are willing to invest in their homes - in the past 7 years, some 300,000 homes (17.5%) have undergone some degree of retrofitting to become more energy efficient.   Selling the benefits in terms of comfort and capital appreciation, together with incentives - be they grants or access to affordable financing - will help to accelerate this process. 

At the enterprise level, there are some great examples of companies that are blazing a trail in relation to energy efficiency and carbon reduction.  Engineers Ireland, in our 'State of Ireland' report, highlights one such company - Astellas Ireland Ltd. - which operates a modern pharmaceutical finishing company in Kerry where it employs 350 people.  They have achieved a 92% reduction in carbon emissions through the installation of a biomass boiler, a wind turbine, and a solar water heating system - and critically in the process they have reduced overall manufacturing costs and increased its competitiveness.  This success story needs to be replicated throughout the country, and in this regard I want to commend the work of the SEAI who are actively driving this agenda.

Transport Sector

Turning to the transport sector, one of the key differences between this sector  and the electricity supply sector is the element of behavioural change and customer choice involved.  Customers have to want to change from oil-based transport, and / or be incentivised to do so.  This requires attractive alternatives to be available.  A modal shift from cars to public transport, to bicycles and to 'Shanks' Mare' - supported by policies and investments to make such shifts attractive - can play a role.  The roll-out of bicycle lanes in Dublin and the Dublin Bike scheme are good examples.  However the real challenge is to transition out of oil in the passenger car and the heavy vehicle fleets, and this brings me to the topic of electric cars,

I have to confess that here I am somewhat biased, as I did my Masters Degree on the UCD electric car way back in 1972/73.  Anyone who came through UCD back then will remember the unusual mustard coloured, fibre glass car parked in the courtyard of what is now government buildings (registration HZO 888).  So I get a real kick when I see the vision becoming a reality, with reports that over a million EVs will be purchased globally this year.  The range of vehicles on offer from the major manufacturers continues to expand, and the research and development effort devoted to battery technologies continues to hammer away at the two major obstacles to large scale adoption: -  cost and range.

It was truly inspirational to read a few weeks ago about Clonmel man John Walsh who, in his 100th year, has just bought a new Nissan Leaf EV - this is a man who learned to drive in his father's Model T Ford over 80 years ago!  In his own words:

 "I am convinced that we have to do something about global warming and pollution .  I am a late convert to environmental protection and a bit of a late starter driving an electric car, but this is my way of playing my part".

I had another minor epiphany during the summer, when i came across a cottage at the very end of the Dingle peninsula with a gleaming red Tesla outside, hooked up to an ESB Networks charging point on the side wall of the house.  There was somebody not too worried about range anxiety!

But apart from these innovators and early adopters, the real question is how quickly will the market for non-oil fuelled passenger cars take off, enough to make a real difference to reduced carbon emissions, and what are the market dynamics that will play out in getting to this position.

Globally there are about 1billion passenger cars on the road, and growing rapidly.  These billion cars account for about 18m bpd of oil, or roughly 1/5th of total oil consumption.  By the end of this year about 2m of these cars, or 0.2%, will have a plug, up from 6000 in 2009.   In terms of the product or technology adoption curve, the current market is being driven by the innovators and early adopters, people who are willing to pay over the odds, and by government subsidies in support of climate change policies.  Of course subsidies cannot go on forever, especially as the sale of EVs continues to grow exponentially.  The subsidies at this stage of market growth are critically important in driving up volumes and driving down costs.  According to a recent Bloomberg report the real lift-off will happen when the total unsubsidised cost of ownership drops to that of oil-fuelled cars.  That depends on the cost of the battery, which currently accounts for about a quarter of the total cost.  However battery prices fell 35 percent last year.  Projecting the battery cost curve forward, the report estimates that the point of mass market lift-off will occur in the mid-20s, and that by 2040 sales of electric cars will account for 35%.

When it comes to heavy vehicles, using CNG offers a real opportunity to reduce emissions from diesel-fuelled trucks and buses.  Importantly, the introduction of CNG to the heavy vehicles fleet is a gateway for the future introduction of renewable gas into the transport sector. Renewable gas in the form of biomethane is an upgraded form of biogas, and is produced through the anaerobic digestion of organic matter. Where renewable gas is used in CNG vehicles, emissions are CO2 neutral, helping to address targets for renewable transport. Renewable gas can be produced from agricultural wastes, thereby also helping to address emissions from the agriculture and farming sector.

So, in thinking about the dynamics of the energy transitions that must take place in the electricity supply, heating and transport sectors, are they happening fast enough, and can they be accelerated?  Are the enabling factors the same enabling factors that influenced previous transitions?  To recap, these were:

·         A 'burning platform' for change

·         Availability of the enabling technologies

·         Clear customer benefits

·         And clear policy direction and implementation

I believe we have a clear and unequivocal platform for change in the challenge of Global Warming.  Certainly enough to spur policy makers into action, as we have seen at global, EU and national levels.  But is it a 'burning platform' - by that I mean is it universally felt as such across all levels of society to the extent that there is a shared sense of urgency?  Unfortunately not, and the paradox here, as I have already mentioned, is that by the time it is felt as a 'burning platform' it may be too late.  Consumer behavioural change must be sold on the basis of clear consumer benefits, as much as on the need to protect the planet.

And that brings me to the availability of the enabling technologies, and the need to continue to invest in energy research and innovation.    What a low carbon future is like, say in 2050 and beyond, nobody really knows at this stage.  There are a myriad of ways of meeting our low carbon goals, using different combinations of new and innovative materials, technologies, processes, and systems, many of which have not even been conceived of yet. This is why energy research, development and innovation is so important.  As new knowledge is created, as new materials, new systems, new technologies come on stream, we as a society can make the right policy choices to get us to where we need to get to; where our demand for energy services across transport, heat and electricity are met securely, competitively and sustainably.  And we as consumers can make the right investment decisions that improve the quality of our lives in a carbon neutral way.

Broader Global transition

Of course the energy transitions that I have been talking about need to happen not just in Ireland, but right across the world.  Other countries are at different stages in their transitions.  It is estimated that about 1.3 billion people world-wide do not have access to electricity, so their 'rural electrification' transition is barely beginning.  Vita, an Irish development agency that I am involved with, are rolling out a programme of improved cookstoves in parts of East Africa.  Throughout the world large scale investments are still being made in highly inefficient subcritical coal plants, which risk locking in carbon emissions for decades.

A recent IEA investment report states that "globally, energy investment is not yet consistent with the transition to a low-carbon energy system envisaged in the Paris Climate Agreement.  A combination of accelerated technological innovation and an investment framework aimed at encouraging rapid, large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies will be essential to steer the transformation of the energy system in a timely way in order to jointly achieve climate and energy security objectives".

concluding remarks

We in the engineering community have a central role in all of this.  We do 'technology' - it's what we're good at.  Ireland has a very vibrant energy research and innovation ecosystem, as I discovered recently when I chaired an expert group on energy research for the department;  and this in turn is giving rise to a surge in related innovative products and services - and high quality jobs - right across the energy value chain.  But I believe we can do a lot more.  We should make sure our voice is heard in policy formation, bringing a strong evidence base and energy modelling capability to bear.  Institutions such as Engineers Ireland, and our sister organisation the Academy of Irish Engineers, can and will play a major role here in distilling the collective experience of the engineering community, and making it available to policy makers.

But beyond that again I think we have a further role, and that is to get involved in communicating the reality of the 'burning platform'.  As engineers we tend to stand on the sidelines, and stick rigidly to 'the facts'.  I believe we also need to engage at an emotional level, and with conviction.  We are an emotional people - we will see the best of this next Saturday when Dublin play Mayo in the replay.  We see the worst of it in our descent into populism in relation to issues such as Irish Water, or nimbyism in relation to the development of necessary infrastructure.  How can we not get emotional when we know with considerable certainty what is going to happen to this planet of ours if we don't take action soon.  How can we not get emotional when we see the effect that flooding has on large sections of our population year in year out.  How can we not get emotional when we see the effects of drought in large sections of Africa, and the resultant impact on migrant flows across the Mediterranean.

I mentioned at the outset Mark Ruddle's reference to the First World War as a war of engineering.  I believe that we are engaged in another 'war of engineering' - this time the enemy is Climate Change.

Thank you