• Declan Meally
  • 12 min read

By taking the lead in embracing sustainable energy practices, the public sector not only helps to mitigate climate change but also inspires citizens and businesses to join the movement towards a sustainable future.

Pictured: NUI Maynooth, Co. Kildare, is one of many public sector organisations striving to achieve its energy efficiency targets.

Declan Meally, SEAI, discusses the critical importance of the public sector’s transition to a low carbon future and the pivotal role played by SEAI in facilitating this transition.

The public sector has a vital role to play in Ireland’s pursuit of a sustainable energy future. By adopting a leadership position and implementing stringent energy efficiency measures across its operations, the public sector not only demonstrates responsible environmental stewardship but also catalyses widespread adoption of sustainable practices.

SEAI’s collaboration and targets

SEAI has been actively collaborating with the public sector since the initiation of the Public Sector Energy Efficiency Program in 2010, which focused on monitoring and improving energy efficiency across public sector organisations. For the period to 2020, the primary emphasis was on energy efficiency and annual reports have been compiled as part of the program in order to track energy usage across various sectors and monitor progress.

According to Declan Meally, Director of Business, Public Sector and Transport and a member of the Executive Leadership Team in SEAI, a 33% target for energy efficiency improvement by the end of 2020 was established for the public sector, which was successfully achieved. While the efficiency gains were significant and helped set an example, the focus has now shifted to decarbonisation which places the emphasis on reducing fossil fuel consumption and transitioning towards clean, renewable energy sources.

“Initially our main focus up to 2020 was on improving energy efficiency; to really ensure that the public sector provided better and more energy efficient services without an increase in energy. That was the big focus but now the challenge is to go it’s going deeper in terms of decarbonisation, which takes it a step further. Decarbonisation essentially comprises two steps: using less energy and using clean energy. So firstly, we have concentrated on shrinking the demand and now it’s about shifting it towards a renewable supply.”

Beyond 2020

While progress has been made, concerted efforts and collaborative action are needed to accelerate the pace of change and achieve the 4% annual reduction in emissions which has been required since 2020. We continue to fall behind this target and Meally says radical change is required across the public sector in order to drive meaningful progress, and transition away from fossil fuels, which are having a detrimental impact on the climate.

“It has gone in the right direction but it’s just not going fast enough and that’s the challenge we face. We need radical changes in how we do our business. It’s not just about business as usual and doing a little bit better and a little bit better. We have to radically change what we need to do. And the public sector is just one sector. We have to do it in industry, we have to do it across transport and in our homes. The public sector, in particular, has to focus on the heat in our buildings, because that’s the most significant contributor to its carbon emissions for the public sector.

“The carbon budgets are set out in two five-year tranches, covering from 2020 to 2025 and from ‘26 to ‘30, and while we have been reducing energy use, we haven’t been reducing the emissions by as much as we should be. Like many sectors we got a benefit, because of Covid-19, because we weren’t using as much heat in our offices, but it bounced back a bit in 2021. We saw a further reduction in 2022 because we pushed out the ‘Reduce Your Use’ program, which provided great examples of what is possible.

“The opportunities are still there, but we should have been achieving a 4% per annum annual reduction in emissions since 2020 and we have only done about 4% overall. We’re behind the curve and we need to accelerate action. That’s the case for every sector. We’re seeing some reductions, but we’re not seeing nearly enough reductions  to work within the budgets that have been assigned by the government and that are legally binding for us from 2020 to 2025.”

Reducing fossil fuel usage

There is a pressing need for the public sector to prioritise the reduction in fossil fuel usage and embrace renewable energy sources and significant changes in business practices will be required. Collaboration among key stakeholders, including government departments, schools, universities, and local authorities as well as the health sector, is crucial in implementing sector-specific solutions, according to Meally.

“Fossil fuels are the biggest cause of emissions in Ireland. We’re releasing too much heat into the atmosphere through our use of fossil fuels, and that’s going out into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Agriculture is different and releases greenhouse gases in the form of methane from the sheep and cattle and from the nitrogen when spreading the fertilizer on the land.

“So agriculture accounts for approximately one third of the overall emissions. The other two thirds are from fossil fuels and that’s why every sector has to reduce and decarbonize their fossil fuel use. My message to the public sector is that their climate and sustainability plans need to be firmly focused on reducing and decarbonising fossil fuel use which means to use less and to use cleaner energy sources. And as I said, we got really good traction in doing more for less up to 2020, but we now really need to accelerate this transition to a decarbonised energy system.”

Heating: a significant energy user

A significant portion of energy consumption in the public sector is attributed to heating buildings and the SEAI Heat Study in 2022 identified sector specific solutions tailored to key segments such as hospitals, schools, and office blocks.

These solutions range from district heating schemes powered by renewable sources to the adoption of biomass boilers and heat pumps. Hospitals may benefit from district heating powered by renewable sources, while schools could transition to wood chip or wood pellet boilers. Meanwhile, office buildings could leverage district heating or deploy heat pumps for efficient heating. The technology is available now and has been proven to work.

“There’s around 13,000 buildings in the public sector and there’s about 1,000 of those 13,000 buildings that are the really significant users of heat,” Meally says. “Over half the heat used in the public sector is accounted for by 1000 sites, including the main hospitals and university campuses. So, we have a very good idea of the general usage of the big energy users, and we are building better knowledge of the smaller buildings.

“We’ve tasked every public sector organisation with detailing and developing a profile of their building stock. The SEAI Heat Study that was launched in 2022 showed that the health and education sectors are the biggest energy users. Offices are next but the big-ticket items are the hospitals and the schools.

“There’s solutions for hospitals, in particular and the likes of a district heating scheme for a hospital fed with renewable heat is an excellent solution depending on where a hospital is.

It needs heat twenty-four seven, 365 days a year, which needs to be delivered through a heat pump, biomass boilers or even waste heat. That’s where the Ringsend Heat System in Dublin would be ideal in terms of helping to feed into the hospitals such as James’s, Vincent’s and others.

“For the rural schools it is likely that district heating will not be a solution. However rural schools or the larger schools in town that might be on oil boilers, switching that to wood chip or wood pellet boilers has been identified by the Department of Education as a really good solution. And then for office blocks, depending on whether they’re in the centre of Dublin, district heating could be an option. But if they’re well insulated, we could put in heat pumps and then you’re using renewable electricity, deploying the heat pump, and the heat is renewable.”

The ‘Big 5’

SEAI is prioritising those sectors with significant energy consumption, which Meally terms the “big five,” and which include healthcare, education, government offices, and local authorities. “There are smaller groups, but they’re the big hitters, and that’s what we need to be going after, the big ones in those areas, and finding those solutions,” he says.

Again, stressing the need for accelerated action, Meally highlights the urgency imposed by carbon budgets as well as Ireland’s legal obligations and the long-term goal of decarbonising every public building by 2050. In addition, European mandates, including requirements for solar panels on public sector buildings are likely to become more onerous in the near future.

Pathfinder Programme

Acknowledging the substantial effort required for this transition, he references the funding provided through SEAI’s Pathfinder Programme, which has been instrumental in showcasing viable pathways for decarbonisation across key sectors such as healthcare, education, and government offices.

These initiatives, such as retrofitting old schools, are showcasing the most feasible pathways towards energy efficiency and the benefits of decarbonisation.

However, Meally also acknowledges the urgent need for additional resources and internal capacity within the public sector to scale up these efforts effectively.

“We have been providing funding through our Pathfinder Programme over the last five years to set out these pathfinders for each of those sectors and demonstrate how to really make the building stock more efficient,” he says.

“We are working with stakeholders, working with the OPW, working with the HSE and we have demonstrator sites to show that this is where we should go and how to actually get there. But given the scale of the challenge this needs a significant increase in funding, and resources right across the sector. There is a need for building a lot of internal capacity in the public sector to be built in terms of technical teams and other resources. The SEAI Pathfinder programme will be necessary to continue to build capacity and maintain momentum however activities will need to grow significantly beyond that if we are to hit our targets.”

“While we need to keep working on the big energy using buildings and we also know the huge opportunity there is in terms of demand reduction by being smart about how we use the spaces and by making sure that our buildings and our building management systems are operating as efficiently as possible.”

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Watch our video about the Pathfinder Programme and the Department of Education

A collective responsibility

Energy efficiency and reducing our demand is the best and most affordable activity that every organisation can take. However there has to be buy-in across the whole system, right across the public sector. It’s not just down to the ‘green champions’ or it’s not just down to the Minister, SEAI or one department, it has to become everybody’s responsibility.

There also has to be overall leadership demonstrated across the sector and clear management demonstration that they are taking this seriously. There’s a willingness there, but sometimes it can be everybody’s job and yet it ends up being nobody’s job.”

The demand for resources, and skilled labour, is clearly significant and while industries have scaled up in response to funding incentives, the public sector faces challenges in procuring, designing, and implementing these significant projects. A concerted effort is needed to reduce bottlenecks and accelerate project development. Despite these challenges, Meally remains optimistic about Ireland’s potential to meet targets through collective action and proper strategic planning.

We have been providing funding through our Pathfinder Programme over the last five years to set out these pathfinders for each of those sectors and demonstrate how to really make the building stock more efficient.
Declan Meally, Director of Business, Public Sector and Transport, SEAI

Home retrofit programme

He points to the success of the home retrofit programme and says there is the potential for similar schemes in the public sector. By providing financial incentives and mobilising the market, significant progress can be made while public awareness and engagement are also key factors in driving uptake and participation in sustainability initiatives.

“The home retrofit scheme is moving at pace and in terms of the decarbonisation, it has got out of the blocks quicker than the public sector since 2020. Given the scale of the emissions from residential heating it was the right place to start however the Public Sector must now move fast to try to catch up.

“Part of the encouragement that I take from the home retrofit is that we’ve seen companies scale up and we see more activity and more vans on the road. The funding commitment was signalled by Government and the industry supply chain reacts to this, so there’s no doubt the retrofit industry can move quickly, when properly incentivised. I think the bigger challenge is actually within the public sector to have the capacity to procure, to design and to do the work on the inside to get the industry going. That’s where we are identifying in terms of the needs of the ‘Big 5’ that I mentioned."

“There’s only a certain level of capacity within the system and we have to make sure we reduce bottlenecks and see how we can accelerate development of these projects. Could we work on group activities? Is there a really clever way in terms of doing district heating? Can we do it faster? But a lot of these take years of planning, and that’s a challenge, it’s going to take time. We’re signalling these are happening, but we’re only at the start in terms of the current level of activity in comparison to what needs to happen."

Time to act

The window for action is narrowing and while environmental, social and governance (ESG) obligations and public pressure are driving businesses towards sustainability, the public sector’s slower pace of change presents unique challenges. However, challenging targets have been met previously, despite scepticism over our ability to do so.

“The media don’t tend to focus on it when the targets are hit and the 2020 target of a 33% reduction in energy use by the public sector was hit. When we set out the 40% renewable electricity target for Ireland back in 2007, people said we couldn’t do but Ireland did hit that target. So, I’m optimistic that as an island nation, if we put our shoulders collectively to the wheel and make a concerted effort that we can do it. But it’s getting harder and harder and harder the longer we leave it."

"We can however see from the great work we are doing through our Pathfinder partnerships that there are huge benefits for everyone in the retrofit of our schools, hospitals making those building more comfortable and less costly to run. Let’s not waste this fantastic opportunity to future proof our public building stock and build on the great work that is happening right across the public sector."

This article was originally published in the The Public Sector Magazine on 5 April 2024.

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Declan Meally | Director of Business, Public and Transport sectors

Declan Meally is Director of Business, Public Sector and Transport and a member of the Executive Leadership Team in SEAI. Declan joined SEAI in 2005 and has been involved in the successful delivery of many of the organisation’s programmes. Declan has served as Head of Department across a number of areas at SEAI including Industry, Marine/Ocean Energy, Smart Grid, Transport, Communities and more recently National Retrofit. He is a chartered mechanical engineer and has worked for over twenty years in management in both the public and private sectors. Prior to joining SEAI, Declan worked in management in Xerox Europe Limited and Aer Rianta as well as the Defence Forces.