Energy Institute

Is Ireland’s electricity system environmentally friendly? Is our electricity system helping fight climate change?

Yes, our electricity system is, in comparison with others such as Spain, Germany and the UK (see Fig 5 in next question), environmentally friendly; but we will need to do a lot more if we are to continue to play our part in fighting the threat of climate change.

We can measure the environmental performance of our electricity system by the greenhouse gas emissions emitted per unit of electricity generated, the efficiency with which we convert our fuel resources into electricity, and by the level of renewables in the electricity we use.

Ireland’s electricity system has improved on all three of these measures since 1990 1.

  • Our greenhouse gas emissions per unit (kWh) of electricity generated have fallen by nearly 50% since 1990 i.e. from 896g CO2/kWh in 1990 to 456g CO2/kWh in 2014 (Fig. 1).
  • The average efficiency at which we turn our primary energy into electricity has improved from 33.5% in 1990 to 49.1% in 2014. This means that we now extract 46% more power from the same amount of fuel as we did in 1990.
  • In 1990 about 4.9% of Ireland’s electricity came from renewable sources of energy. That figure has massively increased to over 22% in 2014 2.

Figure 1. CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity supplied

SEAI (2015) Energy in Ireland 1990-2014. Available Online

  • Electricity kg CO2/kWh

Our improvements on these three key performance indicators clearly answer the question of whether this country’s electricity system is playing its part in the fight against climate change 3. We achieved these gains thanks to: new more efficient and competitive generation technology (Fig. 1 above); improved access to and use of natural gas; reduced coal and oil use; and more renewable energy.

Two key policy sets are driving the improvement in the environmental performance of our electricity system – the Government’s renewable energy feed-in tariff and the overarching influence of EU energy policy on Irish energy policy.

The Government’s renewable energy feed-in tariff supports wind energy, the use of biomass, and landfill gas for power generation 4. It has stimulated investment in energy from renewable sources and helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power generation in Ireland (Fig.2).

Figure 2. Avoided CO2 from Renewable Energy in Ireland from 1990 – 2013

SEAI (2016). Energy Data Portal. Available Online.

  • Solid Biomass
  • Biogas
  • Geothermal
  • Solar Thermal
  • Waste Water Biogas
  • Hydro
  • Wind
  • Biofuels
  • Landfill Gas

The EU aims to achieve further decarbonisation of the electricity system in ways that are compatible with the creation of an integrated single electricity market. It is reforming the EU emissions trading system (EU-ETS) to drive emission reductions in power generation in the EU as a whole. With the central allocation of allowances within the EU-ETS in 2012, the management of emissions from the power sector became a matter for the EU itself.  As a result, the Irish power sector plays its part in reducing emissions within the wider EU effort. Our electricity generators buy rights to emit CO2 (emission permits) and, as the costs entailed are passed through in the wholesale price, this impacts on the competitiveness of generators and what we consumers pay for our electricity.

As the available emission permits are capped at successively lower levels, the expectation is that the price of emission permits will rise and high emitters like coal-fired power stations will become less competitive. With new investment, the generation mix will, over time, shift towards more sustainable, lower-emitting and renewable sources.  Critics say the EU-ETS has not worked arguing that an oversupply of allowances has kept prices low. However, the EU currently is reforming the system with the aim of addressing the persistent low prices by removing excess allowances 5.