Why Ireland is the worst country in the EU to use renewable energy to generate thermal energy

IRELAND HAS THE worst performance in the EU when it comes to using renewable energy sources for heating and cooling, according to new European data.

Only 6% of the energy needed for heating and cooling in Ireland came from renewable sources in 2020, the lowest proportion of any EU country.

The Department for the Environment acknowledged the finding and said Ireland’s use of renewables for heating was “not a factor” in meeting wider targets for renewables in 2020.

Overall, renewable sources accounted for 23.1% of the energy used in the EU for heating and cooling in 2020.

Sweden, Estonia and Finland are the best performing countries, with respectively 66.4%, 58% and 58% of energy for heating and cooling coming from renewable sources.

Renewables in Ireland accounted for just 6.3% of the energy used for heating and cooling, slightly behind the Netherlands and Belgium, which were both at 8%.

Experts explained to The newspaper the factors that led to Ireland’s poor performance, while the Department for the Environment says progress is being made to increase heating from renewable energy.

Source: Eurostat

“While progress is being made in terms of increasing renewable heat, Ireland’s performance in using renewables in the heat sector has been a factor in not meeting the overall target of 16 % renewable energy for 2020,” a department spokesperson said. The newspaper.

“There are currently grants to increase the use of renewable energy for heating purposes,” the spokesperson said.

“For example, the Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH) is a government-funded initiative designed to increase energy produced from renewable sources in the heating sector,” the spokesperson said.

“The program is open to commercial, industrial, agricultural, district heating, public sector and other non-domestic heat users.

“The Climate Action Plan (CAP 21), which sets the roadmap to halving our emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050, recognizes the need to heat our homes and businesses from renewable sources.”

In 2020, 57% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions were energy related. About two-fifths is used to heat buildings.

Dr Fionn Rogan, a senior researcher at the MaREI research institute in Cork, said renewable heat is an overlooked area in policy-making.

“On the energy share, 40% comes from the heating of buildings. It is now the most important sector ahead of electricity and transport,” said Dr Rogan.

“Despite the large share coming from heat, renewable heat has been one of the most neglected policy areas for decades in Ireland,” he said.

How did we come here?

Although the amount of energy from renewable sources in Ireland is increasing, the country has been slow to electrify heating and cooling systems compared to other countries in Europe.

In particular, Ireland is lagging behind in the development of district heating – a network system that can supply heat to buildings via insulated underground pipes to heat spaces and water.

Lecturer in building engineering at TU Dublin, Dr Ciara Ahern explained: “We tend to heat at the source in the building rather than with a district heating system.”

“In our towns our heating and cooling is mainly gas, while in rural Ireland it is oil-fired,” Dr Ahern said.

Ireland as a country has not invested heavily in infrastructure for many years.

“If you think about what we’ve done with Ardnacrusha and Turlough Hill, these big infrastructure projects, we haven’t done them for the last 10 years, certainly in Ireland there’s been a lack of investment in infrastructure.”

Ardnacrusha is a hydroelectric station on the River Shannon which was built in the 1920s, while Turlough Hill is the site of a pumped storage hydroelectric station in Co Wicklow which opened in 1974. Both were developments important in the production of renewable energy for Ireland.

Elsewhere in Europe, the top performers in renewable heat have adopted strategies that have not been adopted in Ireland.

Dr. Niall Farrell, energy and environmental economist at ESRI, said that “a few traits that some of them share that may be quite interesting – it’s not going to drive everything, but it’s perhaps something that is responsible for much of the variation”.

“Some countries like Sweden and Denmark have a lot of district heating. Their cities are dense urban environments where you can have a situation where a generator could power a city, or even just a building. In Ireland, our cities are not as dense, so we don’t really have district heating systems. »

District heating can be powered by fossil fuels, but as the system is centralized it is much easier to switch to renewable energy sources than when heating is provided by smaller individual units.

“It also opens up other options for heat generation, such as recovering waste heat from other processes,” Dr Farrell said.


A district heating plant in Borås, Sweden. January 2019

Source: Shutterstock/stilrentfoto

“Sweden, Iceland, Austria – they have a lot of geothermal, it’s a natural resource that helps them there,” he said.

Sweden, with 66% of its energy for heating and cooling coming from renewable sources, is the opposite of Ireland.

“The problem with Sweden is that they started thinking about the climate much earlier than we did. They had carbon prices in place in the 90s… They were thinking about the climate, moving away from fossil fuels , well ahead of the rest of Europe,” said Dr Farrell.

“They also have a huge forest resource, which allows them to set up district heating and then fuel it with biomass. [organic material],” he said.

“They didn’t have a district heating policy per se, maybe they had a policy to get away from fossil fuels, get away from imported fuels, and district heating turned out to be the best thing that works. for them.”

How do we solve it?

It’s mostly about equipment and infrastructure – getting the right pieces of the puzzle in place and making sure they’re working properly.

Dr Ahern said that if the dominance of fossil fuels in heating weakens, new fossil fuel boilers and furnaces risk slowing the transition to an electrified economy as they will continue to release carbon dioxide emissions throughout their lifespan of about 15 to 20 years.

The solution is “rapid integration of heat pumps”, but some buildings will need to be renovated to allow the pumps to operate efficiently.

“The first stage is the refurbishment of the park and the second stage concerns the heat pumps. Otherwise, they cost a fortune to run. You can’t put them in a building with poor thermal performance,” Dr. Ahern explained.

ESRI’s Dr Farrell said carbon taxes – a source of political contention in Ireland – are key to funding these kinds of changes.

“The carbon tax is the basis, it makes it more profitable. It’s not going to solve all the problems, but it’s going to put it on people’s horizons,” he said.

Additionally, Ireland needs to make it easier for people to install new technology, he said.

For a lot of people that’s an inconvenience, they don’t want people in their homes, they don’t want to think about that stuff, we need to make the sustainable choice easier.

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“The third thing is that there may be financial constraints. We have grants and other things that are in play, but one thing I would consider is do we need low cost loans? People might have the financial resources in the long run, but they just don’t have that one-time lump sum that they would need for that facility, so the loan program might be helpful in that regard.

“The last question is maybe even if we had the desire and the movement to put all these mechanisms in place, do we have people there to do the installations? That’s the problem when it comes to the housing crisis in general and it’s a problem when it comes to this context as well.

“We need enough tradespeople. Are they here? And if they’re not, how do you get people from other countries to come to Ireland and be attractive? In terms of cost of living and things like that, it always comes into that decision for people to come from other countries.

The Climate Action Fund is currently funding two district heating projects in Dublin.

The Tallaght district heating system, currently under construction, will use waste heat from a data center to heat surrounding buildings, including TU Dublin’s Tallaght campus.

A Dublin district heating system is currently in the planning phase. The project aims to capture waste heat generated in industrial facilities and channel it into homes and businesses in Poolbeg, Ringsend and the Docklands.

National Heat Study

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is currently working on a National Heat Study which will examine options for decarbonising the heating and cooling sectors in Ireland by 2050.

It “will provide valuable information and data to support policy-making,” an environment ministry spokesperson said.

“The publication of the National Heat Study and the results of the consultation on the introduction of a Renewable Energy Obligation will inform future policy and work continues to meet the targets set in CAP21 to increase the use from renewable sources for heating purposes,” the spokesperson said.

Dr Fionn Rogan said that “if enough policy flows from this set of reports, it could be a game-changer for renewable heating in Ireland”.

“The latest climate action plan aims to significantly increase the share of district heating, which will help Ireland meet its renewable heat targets,” he said.

“Achieving the reduction in emissions by 2030 (-51%) in line with the carbon budgets recently published by the CCAC will be daunting.”

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