Dr Eimear Cotter, Head of Low Carbon Technologies discusses recent statistics published surrounding the level and effect of competing forces within Ireland's energy system.
At SEAI we are committed to publishing up-to-date statistics so that data users, including the public, policy-makers, scientists and industry, are equipped with the necessary data and indicators to help address Ireland's energy challenges. Around this time every year we issue provisional energy balance figures, to give an early indication of initial energy trends for the year past. The figures just published for 2015 demonstrate some of the competing forces at work within our energy system, for example, economic growth, renewable energy deployment and fossil fuel prices.
On economic growth, we see early indications of a re-coupling of energy use and economic activity. While energy growth is still lower than GDP growth, the gap between them is much closer than in recent years. In fact while economic growth has been positive since 2010, last year saw the first positive growth in primary energy since 2008.
For renewables, there was a 12.5% increase in renewable energy across power generation, heat and transport. Accounting for over a fifth of all electricity use, the contribution of wind energy in power generation is second only to gas-fired electricity generation and is a significant factor in decarbonising electricity generation.
Despite this progress on renewables, energy-related CO2 emissions actually rose about 5% last year mainly because of increased use of coal and peat in electricity generation. Why might this be? It would appear that low coal prices and relatively high gas price, particularly in the first half of 2015, played a role. In addition, biomass co-firing with peat fell, leading to more peat being used to generate electricity. Add to that reduced electricity imports and the net effect was a marginal increase in the carbon intensity of electricity generation.
These competing forces demonstrate the complexity of Ireland's energy system. Progress made in renewable energy deployment can be easily undone if we fail to decouple energy use from economic growth. The bottom line is we must move away from fossil fuels and, in particular, high emissions-intensive fuels such as coal and peat. We need continued progress in energy efficiency in our homes and businesses. The less energy we use, the easier it is to meet that demand from renewables, and in the short term our renewables targets.
These national energy statistics are a substantial national resource and evidence-base to inform robust decision-making across Government. As the country moves into implementation of the Energy White Paper - Ireland's Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future and the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act of 2015, we need to build on the progress evident in terms of renewable energy deployment and heed the warnings inherent in the figures in terms of a possible recoupling of energy and economic recovery.
Dr Eimear Cotter is Head of Low Carbon Technologies with responsibility for SEAI’s analysis, policy support and research programmes to support delivery of Ireland’s sustainable energy goals. She joined SEAI in 2015 and prior to this she worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. She holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Smurfit Graduate School of Business, a Ph.D in Chemistry from Oxford University and a primary degree in Science (Chemistry) from Trinity College Dublin.