Engineers are thought leaders, educators and advocates for a vitally important profession. What you do underpins practically everything this country aspires to deliver in the built environment, in technological development and in terms of the cutting-edge economy we need to be. But we are more than our machines. We are a community and a society. The quality, the inventiveness and the functionality that superb engineering brings to our lives facilitate how we live now. And it’s a driver of what we’ll become. There’s a symbiosis, at its best, between science and society. Regrettably, at its worst, there is disruption, dislocation and in the case of climate change potentially even annihilation. As engineers, you individually have a body of knowledge that is essential to us surviving and to thriving. As a professional body, you have a powerful platform, and I suggest a powerful responsibility. There is a pressing need not just for more educated professions, but for authoritative, credible opinion formers in our public debate, to lead our conversation online, on air and in our newspapers. The theme of Engineers Ireland’s 2017 conference in Tullamore focuses on two key areas: flooding and renewable energy. The midlands region has seen both the opportunities for renewable energy as well as some of the greatest challenges in implementation.

Tackling groundwater flooding

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is currently undertaking a project through the Geological Survey of Ireland on groundwater flooding related to turloughs. The combination of engineering/geology/surveying and modelling, using the latest in research and remote sensing is unique. There are now 40 temporary gauges deployed across all the significant turloughs and a further 20 will be instrumented as soon as equipment is received. Data from these stations will be assessed to monitor, understand and delineate groundwater flooding in Ireland. Aerial surveys such as LIDAR [light detection and ranging] and UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] imagery will also be used to improve current groundwater flood mapping in hazard zones. Furthermore, satellite remote sensing data will used to provide up-to-date flood mapping for unmonitored turlough systems. This is unique and world-class research. Adaptation to climate change cannot ignore rural communities. I recently addressed the Council of the European Union Environment Ministers in Malta and I told colleagues that not only must we address the impact of climate on our towns and cities, but also how such actions will interact with the measures to be taken in rural areas. For example, there is no point pushing floodwaters out of towns, unless we address the impact of those waters on rural areas as well. Ireland relies on high emission, and imported fossil fuels to meet over 88% of our energy needs. This costs half a million euro every hour. That’s a cost we cannot afford in cash, and which our planet cannot afford at all. The word ‘global’ in global warming accurately summarises the incontrovertible science underlying that imminent threat. It is also in its vastness, potentially daunting, even discouraging. How can any one country, especially a small one, make a difference? It is the task of politics to bridge the chasm between global challenge and national responsibility, and between Ireland’s obligation and every single citizen’s responsibility.

Energy and climate action

Energy and climate action are inextricably linked. Using less energy, and using it more efficiently, is the most cost effective and accessible way for us all to take action on climate change. Everyone deserves a home they can afford to heat and to light. But, regrettably, some cannot. Many struggle to make ends meet. And among those who struggle hardest, too many live in homes that are sinkholes for fuel poverty. Ending this inequality is a priority for me. Energy poverty is an environmental issue. It is an economic issue that blights lives and energy efficiency is the most important means of tackling it. That’s why I secured additional funding for energy-efficiency upgrades in this year’s Budget. Over 350,000 people across Ireland have improved the energy efficiency in their homes through Government grants and, specifically, some 300 community energy projects have received funding and support over the past five years, resulting in 15,000 homes and hundreds of community, private and public buildings improving their energy efficiency. The total investment in energy efficiency is almost €67 million, which is also supporting more than 1,000 jobs in the construction sector right across the country. Insulation isn’t a single-issue panacea for poverty. But it ensures a person can live in a home that is warmer, more comfortable and costs less to heat. It also ensures that people are less vulnerable to changes in energy prices or unexpected falls in their income. Ireland has a target of meeting 40% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020. Provisional data for 2016 shows that over 26% of electricity demand was met from renewable sources and we are well placed to meet our 40% target by 2020. To date, the focus of sustainable energy investment has predominantly been on onshore wind. In that respect, work on developing appropriate Wind Energy Guidelines is being finalised, and my colleague Simon Coveney and I will be bringing a Memorandum for Government soon to Cabinet. Real community engagement and long-term economic dividend will be the cornerstone of the guidelines we produce. However, the transition to a low-carbon economy will not be delivered by any one single event or technology – it will be a process. While onshore wind will continue to have a major role to play, other technologies, such as biomass and offshore renewable energy, can play a critical role in helping us move to a low-carbon economy by 2050.

Wind, tidal and biomass energy

Ireland is open for business and is actively committed to harnessing our abundant wave, tidal and offshore wind energy resources in an environmentally sustainable manner. The allocation this year for the Government’s Ocean Energy Programme is €4.75 million. Funding is provided by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and it supports the development of the test sites in counties Mayo, Galway and Cork, the Integrated Maritime Energy Resource Cluster at Ringaskiddy, and the Prototype Development Fund operated by the SEAI. The primary rationale for this programme is to develop and maximise the employment and wealth-generating industry activities that could potentially be associated with ocean energy as it evolves into a fully commercially viable sector. Energy from biomass has, for some time, been making a significant contribution to several policy objectives, particularly in the midlands. I see the Renewable Heat Incentive [RHI] for Ireland as a viable measure to stimulate growth in the domestic biomass sector. It will bring new markets. As these convert, it will create a demand for more biomass supply and fresh opportunities for local farmers. This financial support scheme is aimed at incentivising a switch from fossil fuel-based heating systems to renewable heating solutions that will create new commercial opportunities for biomass and potentially biogas producers. To accelerate the development of our emerging domestic biomass industry, I will soon bring a memo to Cabinet on the establishment of BioEnergy Ireland. This entity will drive efficiencies of scale by making biomass available to the entire market and procuring from all sources. In the near term, these sources will include some from abroad. This is to meet the projected shortfall in domestic supply. However, as more Irish forestry matures over the coming decade, domestic product will gradually displace imports. BioEnergy Ireland will work to build on progress with a range of initiatives designed to further promote afforestation, to improve private forest efficiencies and to develop the demand for biomass fuel itself. While I see market opportunities expanding for indigenous biomass producers, the issue of environmental sustainability and air quality will be high priorities as the schemes is designed. The use of biomass in the energy mix can lead to an increase in emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. In Ireland alone, four deaths per day are attributed to air pollution with an estimated cost of €2 billion per year, so therefore the use of appropriate technology standards and fuel quality will be introduced as part of the RHI scheme.


The job of turning the tables on climate change, and of tacking fuel poverty effectively, does not come with a silver bullet. These are densely integrated agendas, requiring discipline and persistence. On climate change, the science is clear. What is less clear is the human will to change. As minister for climate change, I cannot sit on the seashore, and order the tide to go out. I must persuade. I must enable people to make change themselves. I believe in the power and capacity of government to give leadership, and to lead change effectively. There is no Gantt chart able to encompass the complexity and the volatility of the multitude of moving parts that are politics at any moment. It is the synergy and symbiosis of fact and emotion, of IQ and EQ, of self-interest and idealism. Today, I ask you to bring the clarity of science and the authority of your profession to complex and sometimes emotional debate. Engineering translates extraordinary complexity into stunning simplicity. Speaking over 200 years ago, Edmund Burke said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” The challenge of climate change dwarfs every issue that ever confronted humankind. If we fail to do the little we can, the consequence of our mistake will be tragedy. But, it need not be. It requires that as common humanity we pool our resources of talent and treasure, and pull together one with another, for the preservation of all.