The Irish electricity sector can only meet the government’s carbon emissions targets by the end of the decade if there is a complete transformation of our planning system and grid policies, according to a report published by Wind Energy Ireland. 

Bridging the Gap: Towards a zero-carbon power grid was produced jointly by specialist energy consultants Baringa and TNEI. It is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the electricity system’s potential carbon budget and will be a key contribution to the current debate on Ireland’s emissions targets.

Baringa and TNEI show how power sector emissions could be kept to 66 million tonnes – of which six million are from constraints on the transmission system alone – between 2021 and 2030, but only if existing plans for Ireland’s energy system are improved and accelerated.

New grid infrastructure

The analysis confirms this is the best the power sector can deliver unless extensive new grid infrastructure is completed by 2030, coal and peat electricity production ceases much sooner, or large volumes of offshore wind are connected before 2028, which experts say is now the earliest date for delivery.

Noel Cunniffe, CEO of Wind Energy Ireland, said: “Hitting our 2030 targets, cutting our carbon emissions by 51%, is still just about possible but we are not moving fast enough. Some progress has been made but our existing strategies, plans and targets are simply inadequate and need to be stepped up.

“The full resources of the state must be brought to bear if the electricity sector is to deliver these savings. A little more than three years ago the oireachtas voted unanimously to declare that Ireland was in the middle of a climate and biodiversity emergency. It is time to start acting like it.”

Three key priorities for government 

  • We must accelerate the delivery of onshore wind and solar. While offshore wind energy will be the cornerstone of our future zero-carbon electricity system, Ireland must save carbon emissions as early in the decade as possible and the first offshore wind farm is not expected until 2028. Until then, we will need to rely entirely on faster development of onshore wind and solar which means prioritising these projects in a properly funded planning system.
  • Shaping Our Electricity Future is not enough. Ireland will need every single project identified in EirGrid’s Shaping Our Electricity Future strategy but even with that we are still emitting more than 70 million tonnes of carbon over the decade. Bridging the Gap identifies several additional existing power lines which must be upgraded but we will also need rapid deployment of smart grid technologies like ‘Dynamic Line Rating’ which allows the electricity system to carry more power when the weather is cooler.
  • We must replace the fossil-fuel based back-up. Ireland currently uses gas and coal generators to back-up the electricity system and ensure it remains secure. We must start work now to replace these with low and zero-carbon technologies like battery storage, new interconnectors and demand-response technologies which lower electricity demand at times of tight supply.

Wind energy in Ireland today is saving more than double the carbon emissions savings of every other renewable technology combined. The industry has the pipeline of projects, the investment and the expertise to match the ambition set out in Bridging the Gap but cannot succeed without a determined response from every level of government and the political system.

Noel Cunniffe said: “It has never been more urgent to act. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine means spiralling gas and electricity prices across the continent. This creates real hardship for families who will struggle to pay bills that, ultimately, end up funding Russia’s war.

“Ireland can play a critical role in defending Europe. Not with guns, missiles or tanks, but with wind turbines, solar panels and battery storage. We can build an energy independent Ireland at the heart of an energy secure Europe.

“Our electricity grid is not fit for purpose. It was designed for a 20th century fossil-fuel based economy.

“We need to build critically needed new infrastructure like the North-South Interconnector and we must invest in EirGrid and ESB Networks to ensure that the system can, when the wind and solar is available, operate with 100% renewables.

“Every part of EirGrid’s strategy must be delivered. Anyone opposing it is – consciously or otherwise – undermining our country’s energy security and our economic future.

“But this report from Baringa and TNEI shows that EirGrid’s strategy is not enough. It must be improved with new technologies and zero-carbon solutions. We need more power lines and underground cables to get power from the wind farms and solar farms which will generate it to the homes, farms and businesses that will need it.”

'Pace and timing'

Dr Mark Turner, partner with Baringa, said: “Our analysis shows that it is not just the end goal for decarbonisation that is crucial, but also how we get there. The pace and timing of renewable deployment over the coming years will have a massive impact on cumulative CO2 emissions, which is how Ireland’s decarbonisation performance will be measured. Substantial ongoing power generation from fossil fuels is rapidly eroding carbon budgets.

“We show that a renewed effort is needed right now to ensure the fastest possible deployment of onshore renewable energy and a stronger electricity grid. This must be viewed as a national priority if Ireland’s climate ambitions are to be met.”

Jeff Kelliher, specialist consultant with TNEI, said: "There is no silver bullet for transforming our power system towards net-zero. However, early deployment of renewable energy, as well as enabling this energy access to the grid, are imperative.

“The existing grid development strategy is not enough and is already incredibly ambitious in such a short timeframe. Building the level of new infrastructure required, needs urgent and unprecedented action, from all corners of the industry.

“We need more infrastructure. We need policy fit for purpose. We need transparency and collaboration. We need new ways of thinking and courage to act on them. We need action.”