Eight things to know about Ireland's energy system.

Eight things to know about Ireland's energy system.

Energy is on everyone’s lips nowadays but it means different things to different people.  Given that I’m obsessed about this topic, I’ve challenged myself to share eight bits of information that I normally include in talks on the topic.

  1. What is energy anyways?

Like the weather, energy is difficult to describe if you’re only allowed use that umbrella term (see what I did there?…!) I like the junior cert description that energy is the ability to do work.  It can’t be created or destroyed but can be changed from one form into another.

The chemical energy in fuels is turned into thermal energy by burning.  On a small scale, that thermal energy is heat in open fires or stoves in our homes.   It’s also how we power our diesel cars and on a bigger scale, fly planes and power ships.  That thermal energy can be turned into electricity using large engines similar to the ones in aeroplanes.

The potential energy of wind is turned into electricity using turbines and the light energy of sunshine is turned into electricity using solar panels.  Electrical energy can be turned into chemical energy by electrolysis which separates the hydrogen (H) from oxygen (O) in H2O.

2.  What sort of energy do we start with in Ireland and where does it come from?

The latest SEAI "Energy in Ireland" report explains that we can group where we get our energy from into three bundles of roughly the same size.  We get 45% of our energy from oil (all imported), 34% from natural gas (mostly imported) and the other 21% from everything else - renewables, coal, peat, wastes and imported electricity.

3. What do we use energy for in Ireland?

About 40% of energy in Ireland is used for heating, another 40% for transport and the remaining 20% for electricity.  That one always makes me pause - only 20% for electricity!  But when I think of my fossil fuel powered heating and car I begin to understand why.

4. Hang on, does that mean electricity and energy aren't the same thing?

While I love sport, I hate how the western world is so obsessed with soccer.  Yes, soccer is A sport but there is so many other forms!.   Similarly, while electricity is energy, it's only a small part of the picture.  So when I hear someone proclaim "Ireland got 80% of its energy from wind yesterday" I die a little inside.

Only one fifth of energy is used in electricity so that's 80% of the 20% or only 16% of the overall.  It's like saying I got an A1 in my English paper so that means I got an A1 in my leaving cert .... er no, you didn't.

I get it, I really do.  Saying " Ireland got 16% of its energy from wind yesterday and the best we'll ever get that up to is 20%" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

5. What role does energy have in climate change?

It's not energy that causes climate change but using fossils fuels. Fossil fuels are carbon based.  When these fuels are burned, that carbon is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Burning Fossil fuels contributes massively to climate change.  While I've no interest in whataboutery, it's worth checking out another nerdy report from the EPA on greenhouse gas emissions which flags all the causes including agriculture at 33.3% and change of land use at 11.2%.

6. Why don't we just stop using fossil fuels?

Wouldn't it be great though if we could just snap our fingers and stop using fossil fuels?  As an engineer, I'm cursed with the need to pick away at a problem until I understand it and then determine what can and can't be changed about a situation.  I was the nightmare child at the magician show I can tell you.

The energy system we have right now will take time to wind down.  Energy is typically stored and transported as fossil fuels.  We need to build out our electricity grid and find another way to back it up when the wind isn't blowing and find a way to power things that can't be plugged in.

Vaclav Smil's recent book "How the world really works" explains how fossils fuels are building blocks of the four pillars of the modern world, ammonia, plastics, cement and steel.

7. But apart from sustainability, we've got a good energy system .... right?

The World Energy Council have a great triple lens that they use to consider an energy system.  It absolutely has to be sustainable for sure, but it also has to provide security of supply and be equitable.  So how as we doing on security of supply?

In October 2022, Eirgrid issued a warning that there could be regular outages over the next decade.  On the natural gas side, as the Corrib gas field is emptied, we will be wholly reliant on the import of natural gas and oil, which accounts for 80% of our energy today.  And that's before we consider the ever changing geopolitical situation which is both caused and impacted by fossil fuel profits.

The cost of energy is crippling households and businesses at the moment and is becoming a topic of discussion both in government, on the radio and at every kitchen table

8.  What is happening to change Ireland's energy system?

The best energy saving is energy that we don't use.  So Ireland is taking steps to reduce energy usage through retrofitting and demand side planning.  Electrifying home heating and personal travel as well as increasing the amount of renewable electricity generated from wind and solar.  There is an ambition to convert offshore wind into electricity which we can use straight away or export via interconnectors.  There's also plans to convert electricity from wind into hydrogen which can be used instead of fossil fuels on the island of Ireland of could be exported by ship or pipeline to countries like Germany who are planning on importing 80% of the hydrogen they need.