Thursday, 8 December 2016
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development: Statements
No, it is the State. The State has to lead and it must have a significant role. I will set out a few examples of what we could do. The first is an area where I am critical, albeit, again, it is not personal in respect of the Minister. We cannot continue to burn coal, peat or biomass for power generation. It is a fundamental law of physics that it sees two thirds of the energy going up the chimney as waste heat. Of the energy we use in this country, 16% is wasted completely by waste heat going up the chimneys. It makes no sense for us to continue that. It is the highest carbon emitting form of generation we have and no amount of mixing biomass in will make it sustainable. We must stop burning coal and peat for power generation and biomass is not the alternative solution. It has a real role in terms of advanced combined heat and power use and advanced use of heat in areas where one is using 80% to 90% of the energy for that heat service. To go down the route of biomass for power generation, however, either where we use our own, which would take a huge volume of land that would not then be available for our other requirements, or importing it from Florida or Africa as native forest, which is what is happening in the UK, is not a clever long-term approach. That material will be needed in America or Africa and we do not need to ship it all over the world, in particular when there is a clear path open to us in the power generation sector. We have an excess number of very new gas-fired stations which we can combine with our renewable power plants for the next ten or 20 years to give us a low-carbon transition as we switch to a 100% renewable system. We do not need to burn coal and peat. We have to stop it if we are serious about climate change. Mixing biomass with it is not the solution.
The Minister is right to say that in the circumstances we have to look after the 2,000 or so people in the midlands who work in the area. A practical, very realisable project to do that, which would benefit hundreds of thousands of homes, involves the 1 million oil-fired central heating systems in houses around the country. They have to go. This is the sort of change we need to make. We should set a ten-year plan to switch them. As we do so, we should carry out a deep retrofit with exterior insulation not only in the attic but wrapping whole buildings, solar panels on roofs and electric heating systems to balance our variable power supply. It might cost €20,000 to €30,000 a house if we did it at scale, but we would save energy for ever and a day, have much more comfortable houses and employ tens of thousands of Irish craftsmen and women in making it happen. What drives me up the wall is that the money is there for this. The EIB is crying out looking for large scale projects. One cannot go the EIB looking for €5 million or €10 million; one needs to go looking for €2 billion. It is there. Britain is very good at this. It got €3.5 billion from the European Investment Bank last year but it is not going to get a penny next year. We need to go to the EIB with large, billion euro projects on which the State leads using local enterprise, craftspeople and businesspeople. We should go for it and tell the people we are doing so. That will create the jobs.
We need to switch on solar power. We have lost the confidence of the people in the midlands in particular in regard to wind farms. We have to be careful and start again in terms of building up that public trust. Solar power is one area and we have to get it onto roofs so that it is people's power and belongs to them. We could do it in fields but the emphasis should really be on getting the people behind us. We would do that by using the roofs of factories and public buildings as well as houses. We can also go with offshore wind. What is screaming out is the opportunity that is opening up because the price of offshore wind has come down in the same way as the price of solar. Vattenfall, DONG and other companies are now bidding in Danish and Swedish waters at half the price they were bidding two or three years ago. The Irish Sea is ripe for us to put 2 GW or 3 GW of offshore wind into our system.
We are close to being one of the best in terms of managing integrating variable renewable power. Why not just go for it and become the best? We should then go to every other industry and say, "Come to Ireland because we can guarantee you low carbon and a stable low electricity price into the future". We are in a position to do it and it is what all those businesses will want. We are not doing it, however, and the market cannot do it by itself. That is what I was saying at the Sustainability Nation conference last month. Everyone in the audience knew this. They all work in the area and they were tearing their hair out because the opportunity was being missed due to lack of ambition within our public and political system.
There are difficult choices here. It is not all easy. To make it work, one needs a grid and we have to build some of it. It is not a popular thing to say and it is not going to be easy to do it but we must build the North-South interconnector. I do not think it can go underground, technically. I have looked at it for ten to 15 years trying to size up how one could do it and I do not see how it is possible. As such, there will be tough decisions and we will have to bring the people along with us through consultation and doing things in a different way. We should also have an ambitious plan. We are late now. We were ahead of the curve on smart-metering ten years ago but we are now behind it. One needs the big projects but it is also about the small, local things. Part of that is putting smart grids in every home. We do not have a plan for it. I read nothing in the document about those big projects. It is not a small project in that we saw the difficulty of getting water meters in and on that basis it may be wondered howl we get smart energy meters installed, but that is what we should be aiming to do.
We can be good at the combination between the digital revolution that is taking place and the clean energy revolution. That is where the jobs are and where economic development lies and it needs State leadership to work. We need it in farming too but we get fixated all the time in the agricultural missions. Let us step back from that a little. I agree that we need to change our forestry model to provide a continuous cover system of forestry, think long term, get better value for the wood, and better manage our land and, yes, we need to cut our emissions in agriculture as Teagasc shows we can, but let that not trip us up. We see this as a difficulty. It is what I call "defeatism". There are complaints that the targets were too hard. I do not believe they were. What is holding us back sometimes is our own sense that they are too hard and, therefore, we do nothing about them. We are frozen in that defeatist attitude. We need to go for it because those countries and economies that do will benefit economically as well as helping with the environmental crisis we face.
We need to change transport. Let us come out with a really bold project to build a proper charging station network for electric vehicles. I know it is a bet. The Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure hate it and want to see the cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes and in some places, one has to take a leap. We need to take a leap here and electric vehicle technology has advanced to the stage where we can afford to do so. We can develop expertise in terms of running the charging system and processing payments. That is our economic opportunity. We are not too good at making cars, but we can make the digital management systems around this change. It requires the State to step up and say it to the ESB, which I acknowledge is not easy. Instead of taking €500 million out of the ESB, as we have in the last few years, we should put €500 million in and keep the profits in the company to invest in large projects of that type. That is what we need to do to make the leap. It is not negative and it is not a hardship. It involves the State leading.
The environmental movement has learned from the past. The divestment campaign Deputy Thomas Pringle referred to is absolutely right. It recognises that we cannot put all the emphasis on the individual at the end of the pipeline in terms of how he or she consumes. We ask if people have changed their light bulbs and if they are charging their phones in the right way. This has left them feeling guilty and helpless because it is not commensurate with the scale of the problem they see. It is now time for the State to lead to make it easy for people to do the right thing. We must bring our citizens with us through the national climate dialogue so that they have the confidence to share digital information to allow us to do all the smart grid things and manage this dance between variable power and variable supply.
It has to start with a mission and the likes of what Whitaker wrote, the "Grey Book", which radically changed the whole system. The annual transition statement does not provide that. Our climate advisory committee is not providing leadership. It will take the political system to do that. All of us should be involved. This is not something that divides us and does not belong to the right or left or the environmental movement; it has to be shared. Let us make the leap.