Author: Dr Paul Deane, Environment Research Institute, University College Cork
On Christmas Day last year, as people were sitting down to dinner, a high-pressure weather system was slowly moving over Ireland, causing temperatures to drop and wind speeds to reduce to an almost calm. Over half a million households were heating their homes with natural gas, while the electricity system called on gas-fired power plants and electricity imports from the UK to meet the bulk of demand in the absence of any wind generation.
Some 150 GWh of natural gas was transported from the UK through the Moffat Interconnection point into Ireland to meet our energy needs on that day. While there is nothing special or significant about this quantity of gas, it does provide a snapshot of challenges faced by Ireland and other EU member states as we transition to low-carbon energy systems with high levels of intermittent renewables. The key questions are: what will provide back up to intermittent renewable generation and from where will this come?
Gas is now seen as an important transitional fuel, which will enable economies to evolve towards a low-carbon future. Gas is a flexible fuel that can be used for transport, heating and electricity generation with lower associated emissions than other fossil fuels. Renewable gas can also be produced and pumped into the gas grid.
Ireland and Europe are similar in many regards in relation to gas, with both being both major consumers and major importers of gas. Ireland imports 95% of gas used and gas represents about 30% of energy supply. This year, Ireland will see the introduction of gas from the Corrib gas field and this will ease our gas import dependency over the next decade.
Europe’s reliance on natural gas – and, in particular on Russian gas – has been well exposed and reported in the past year. Europe imports about a third of its gas from Russia, with the remainder coming from Norway, LNG (liquefied natural gas) imports and North Africa. While the current political situation in Ukraine had no observable impact on import levels from Russia into the EU, it did provide a wake-up call for EU member states to reassess the strong import dependency the EU has on Russia.
After negotiations last autumn, a $4.6 billion package brokered by the European Commission was agreed by Russia and Ukraine to secure gas for Ukraine and ultimately also for Europe. Russian deliveries to Ukraine were resumed in December 2014, following six months of disruption. A series of stress tests undertaken by the European Commission and ENTSO-G last year showed that minimising supply cuts during a possible serious gas supply disruption can best be achieved by broad co-operation and proportionate and effective national security of supply measures.
There are, however, significant differences in the levels of exposure to gas interruption from Russia, with the Baltics, Finland and south-east-European member states being the most affected countries.