In Part II of the report on the seminal national conference on what is Ireland’s greatest challenge as we move towards reopening and into the post-pandemic world, former president of Engineers Ireland PJ Rudden examines the area of planning electricity and heat. 

(Part III will look at energy efficient and buildings; and the final part will delve into sustainable travel and behavioural change, as well as the conference conclusions. Part I can be read here.) 

Planning electricity and heat – Chair Dr Phil Hemmingway Director CRU

Associate professor at UCD, Damien Flynn dealt with the modelling and analysis of the electrical grid with a high share of renewables. Only Denmark internationally matches Ireland in terms of the extent of variable renewable energy and ambition to drive system flexibility to meet grid stability challenges.

There are many potential solutions but only some are considered of sufficient commercial value to date. These are voltage regulating devices, wind and solar forecasting, and utility-scale wind and solar curtailment.

The future grid will have to cope with intermittency of wind and solar with greatly enhanced power demand from data centres, heat pumps and electric vehicles all impacting on grid stability. An open question is how best to move beyond 75% in system non-synchronous penetration?

Many of these questions will be addressed by a new national grid strategy being launched by the second speaker Mark Foley, CEO of EirGrid. He is leading a new national strategy to advance the sustainability and decarbonisation of Ireland’s electricity sector entitled ‘Securing our Electricity Future’.

EirGrid is challenged to facilitate up to 10,000MW of renewable connections while also reinforcing the grid and to deliver more interconnection from the North South Interconnector and the Celtic Interconnector from Cork to Brittany in France.

He quoted young US poet Amanda Gorman (who spoke at the US presidential inauguration in January 2021) that "there is always light if brave enough to see and be it". The time for talk is over, he remarked. "This is a people business and there are many challenges. EirGrid’s new purpose is transformation not evolution". How will this be achieved? By consulting widely on four possible approaches to transforming the electricity supply to 70% renewables by 2030.

Four possible approaches

Going back to ‘Securing our Energy Future’, EirGrid sets out the four possible approaches:

  • Generation-led: this government policy would influence where renewable energy is generated and where the grid is already strong;
  • Development-led: continuing to connect new sources of renewable electricity as requested;
  • Technology-led: using technical solutions to make the grid more resilient so it can handle the variable nature of renewable energy;
  • Demand-led: where government policy determines where large energy users locate.

The selected mix of approaches will be informed by a series of workshops and meetings to determine the final roadmap which may be a blend one or more of these approaches. The consultation material has been prepared with the support of the National Adult Literacy Agency to ensure the language is accessible to non-technical audiences.

The final presentation of Panel 2 was on district heating in Ireland by Donna Gartland, CEO of Codema. This presentation has led to a ‘pivot’ in government approach to renewable heat since the conference and too much appreciated supporting statements by the minister in the media.

The extent to which Ireland was out of step with our European neighbours only revealed itself by the subsequent presentation. Firstly, Ireland was the EU member state with the lowest share of district heating in Europe where the leading countries were Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Denmark, Croatia and Austria.

Yet heat in Ireland represents 21% of total GHG emissions at 11.8 MtCO2 and costs €3 billion per year. Codema heat mapping in the Dublin region alone shows that heat is being wasted on a significant scale from data centres, power stations, waste to energy plants, biomass and industrial waste heat sources, sufficient to heat up to 1.6 million homes in Dublin alone.

European Green Deal

It appears that building regulations support and prioritise the use of district heating over other carbon heating sources and it is also supported by the European Green Deal.

Zoning and planning policy can mandate the use of district heating using a Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) as has been done in the Dublin Docklands SDZ on the north city quays using waste heat from Dublin ‘waste to energy project’ and similarly in the Tallaght area where waste heat from an Amazon data centre is going to be used to heat the South Dublin County Hall, the adjacent TU Dublin campus and a 300-house social homes scheme.

Gartland recommends that "district heating is a proven technology across Europe, that we need to take advantage of local low-carbon resources on our doorstep. Furthermore, it needs to be rolled out and regulated as an essential infrastructure just like electricity and gas networks". 

There was a very lively Q&A mostly on the public acceptance of offshore wind farms, on the integration of heating and electricity systems and why Ireland is only adopting district heating now, much later than many of our European counterparts. Gartland replied that district heating is part of our sustainable future and besides ‘thermal storage is the cheapest form of heat’. 

(Part III will look at energy efficient and buildings; and the final part will delve into sustainable travel and behavioural change, as well as the conference conclusions. Part I can be read here.) 

The conference was organised by the RIA Engineering and Computer Sciences Committee in collaboration with the Climate Change and Environmental Sciences Committee and supported by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency.