Ireland has fallen behind when it comes to meeting our 2020 renewable-energy targets, with significant lack of progress in electrification of heat and transport, according to the chief executive of the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA). Dr Gary Healy reminded delegates at the Engineers Ireland Annual Conference, which took place in Tullamore on 4 May, that the European Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC sets a mandatory target for Ireland of 16 per cent of gross final energy consumption to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. In response, Ireland’s National Renewable Energy Action Plan set out targets of 40 per cent, 12 per cent and 10 per cent for the contributions of renewable energy to electricity generation, heating and transport respectively. "Within that EU target is a 40 per cent target for renewable electricity," said Healy. "Most of that 40 per cent is going to be delivered by onshore wind, but our concern is that we're not achieving the rest of the target in terms of transport and heat. About 5-6 per cent of that 16 per cent is in electrification of heat and electrification of transport, where there hasn’t been as much progress."

Reducing dependence on imported fuels

Healy told the conference that windfarms have been in Ireland for 25 years, and wind is "more of an institution than an innovation". He noted: "We have 280 wind farms with enough capacity to power two million homes… It reduces our dependence on imported fuels: we're now regularly meeting between 55-60 per cent of energy demand when we've a lot of wind on the system." He paid tribute to Eirgrid and the work that it has done to allow that amount of non-synchronous demand to be on the system at any one time, particularly in winter. "We expect in 2017 to install over 500MW, maybe 600 MW, with the same again in 2018. That’s doubling what we've been doing on average for the past ten years. It's driven by policy certainty and the work that has been carried out within ESB Networks to allow a lot more wind on the system. I think we'll see a lot of additional capacity coming in in 2017-18 as we head towards the 2020 EU targets." Healy said he believed that with the right policy and engagement for the next couple of years, coupled with installed capacity, Ireland could "probably reach the 40 per cent target". However, he also believed that the country would not reach the 16 per cent target. "I think that's disappointing. And from the perspective of investors in onshore wind, we could do more than 40% on the electricity target." Healy outlined the significant consequences of this: "We estimate that we'll miss this target by 2-3 per cent in 2020 and that could lead to a fine for the Irish Government of €600 million. So it’s not insignificant if we miss these targets. "I think we need that renewed focus on renewables – not just wind, but solar," he continued, "and we need improvements in terms of policy to give us more certainty and to give us more projects that can get on to the system by 2020 and move towards that 16 per cent target. In terms of the shortfall in terms of megawatts, we're about 1400 megawatts short of the 40 per cent target now. We believe we probably have enough to make that in terms of the national engagement plan."

Moving targets and policy uncertainty

Healy noted the additional complexity caused by the issue of moving targets: "Our difficulty when measuring the shortfall is that demand is moving all the time, so 40 per cent of a moving target is going to be a higher installed capacity by 2020… and we're not thinking about that. We need a steady stream of renewables coming onto the system and we need sufficient planning, grid engagement and regulatory action to make sure that we have rules in place to allow us to continue to invest in renewables. We're only one of four countries highlighted by the EU already as countries that will miss that 16% target. "We've made a lot of progress, but I think we could have done an awful lot more and we can do an awful lot more before 2020." The IWEA chief said that policy certainty and clear guidelines were crucial to the renewable-energy sector in this country. He opined that policy certainty and political leadership had been "missing for the past year or two" and that this was a factor in missing our 2020 energy targets. Healy outlined how a lot of policy work still needs to be done: "We have to ask a lot of questions with regard to the proposed Eirgrid scenarios. How are we going to change behaviour of the consumer? How are we going to ensure there is sufficient capacity on the grid to allow more renewables? Those questions still remain as we move toward 2020 and beyond. These are the questions we should be asking now, not waiting until 2020." He acknowledged that social acceptance is a challenge for the renewables industry and one of the key features of recent years has been the amount of negative publicity the IWEA has received from communities feeling they have had renewable energy 'imposed' on them. "One of the things that we're trying to do now in relation to this is to work more with communities... not just what we can do, but on issues like community benefits, issues of ownership and trying to make sure that communities at a very early stage of planning are involved in what we're trying to do as an industry." He cited case studies from Denmark and in Scotland, where communities have been involved in ownership. "We also have issues around how communities benefit in terms of discounted electricity and making people feel that they're actually reaping the reward for the wind turbine that they see outside their window in terms of cheaper electricity."

Challenges for industries and communities

"It’s a challenge to us as an industry and we're reaching out to our membership base and we are reaching out to communities," said Healy. "We're are talking to a number of stakeholders and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland around how we can improve this. "We very much welcome the code of practice that came out from [Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment] Denis Naughten at the end of last year. We set out a number of things that we need to do – for example, having local representatives and having a clear transparent process with communities – and we'll be working through all of that in the summer months. "A lot of projects are going to be built this year, so we expect to have a lot of engagement with communities as they start to see wind turbines being built. From that perspective, we need to make sure that we get that right," concluded Healy.