Energy Institute

What are the options if we do not want more wind?

Ireland’s choices are limited in the short term by the need to meet our agreed EU target of 16% renewables contribution to energy demand by 2020.

Irish Government policy envisages a 40% renewable energy contribution to electricity demand by 2020. The target for renewable energy in heat is 12% and 10% in transport 1. In theory we have the option of increasing the national targets for heat and transport; there is a view that we need to do just that as the long term targets for greenhouse gas reduction and renewables deployment are not deliverable by focusing solely on the electricity system. However, in 2014 Ireland was only halfway to reaching its sectoral and overall targets 2 and projections indicate we will not achieve the target in the heat and transport sectors without additional measures 3. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR) is commissioning an economic evaluation of measures to promote renewable energy in heating applications 4.

The deployment of wind to meet the electricity element of our renewable energy target is well underway and will involve the construction of more wind-farms; which along with other renewable sources could contribute a total of 5,450MW 5 by 2020. Wind energy is supported by feed-in tariffs under the Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariffs (REFIT) I and II 6. Around 2,120MW of renewable technologies are currently being supported, including 40MW of plant supported from the first renewables scheme, the Alternative Energy Requirement (AER) 7.

But the question remains: What do we do in 2020 if we do not want more wind-farms? The answer is likely to be that we will choose the next best and most affordable alternative, then the next and so on until there is enough effort underway to be sure of reaching the target which the EU has agreed on for 2020, 2030 and beyond 8 (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. National targets for renewable energy for 2020

European Commission (2016). Energy Trends to 2050. Available Online

  • % Renewable Energy

This is one of the reasons the Government reviewed its energy policy 9. It is party due to the EU’s new emissions targets for 2030 and the changing priorities in the EU. The emphasis on reducing carbon emissions has grown but there is more flexibility about the means of getting there. As a result, the renewable energy targets for 2030 are for the EU as a whole and are not legally binding on Ireland as they were for 2020. Security of supply is also a concern because the EU’s fossil fuel import dependence is growing and likely to be impacted by geopolitical developments outside of Europe where most of our oil and some of our gas supplies originate.

Wind-power meets several important Irish energy policy tests: it is renewable, affordable and available in large quantities; it is indigenous; it is carbon neutral; and it provides a measure of security that can be enhanced by interconnection and storage. These tests provide a basis on which to assess and compare the alternatives at any point in time.

The “at any point in time” is important because the economics of deployment of renewable energy can improve over time. In certain parts of the word and for specific applications there are preferred technologies for generating renewable electricity. Right now, while onshore wind is attractive in northwest Europe, the British Government aspires to reduce the cost of offshore wind 10. Similarly, the cost of photovoltaic solar power (solar) to generate electricity is falling as the efficiency of conversion of light into electricity increases and the cost of manufacturing and deploying photovoltaic panels come down 11.

The global options for renewable energy have been assessed using estimated comparative costs (Fig. 5). In practice the availability of the resource, the physical location, the ease and terms of access to capital as well as market factors such as competing technologies and the pattern of customer demand have a bearing on the levelised cost. While it is not possible to say from the table which technology is most appropriate for Ireland it is clear the cost of technologies such as solar and offshore wind may decrease substantially by 2040. Ireland enjoys a comparatively strong wind resource that reduces average generation costs compared to the United States (where this data is sourced) and a relatively weaker solar resource that would increase costs compared with sunnier areas. However, with the recent fall in solar costs, the possibility of co-locating solar facilities with wind in Ireland may offer advantages in terms of ease of distribution, reliability and land use.

Figure 5. Levelised cost of electricity in 2020 and 2040

IEA (2014) Energy Technology Perspective: Tracking Clean Energy Progress. Available Online

It is clear from the above figure that until the cost of electricity from sources such as solar and offshore wind comes down, and technologies still in their infancy such as wave power are developed, the most realistic options for the deployment of additional renewables other than onshore wind in power generation in Ireland may be biomass and organic wastes. However, there are only limited amounts of each available at this time, bioenergy is a relatively expensive option for renewable electricity generation compared to onshore wind and is better suited as an options for renewable heat and transport, and as such current strategies do not anticipate a high contribution from biomass in future electricity generation 12. The McKinsey curve suggests that onshore and offshore wind as well as CCS would be the less expensive options to reduce CO2 in the power sector by 2030 (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Power sector 2030 abatement cost curve

SEI (2009) Ireland’s Low Carbon Opportunity. Available Online