Ireland currently relies on fossil fuels power plants for 75% of its electricity. Without coal and oil resources of our own, we in Ireland depend on imported fossil fuels for most our primary energy needs (about 90% 2013). Fossil fuels are an unappealing option if we are hoping to meet our 80% target since they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if they are burned without using carbon capture technology. In addition, if we rely on fossil fuel imports we are dependent on other countries for something that is essential to our everyday lives. The price of these fuels is unpredictable, which makes it harder for business and households to plan their expenditure.It is a good idea to have some conventional power plants if we are using lots of renewable energy from wind or wave that stop and start depending on the weather. Gas power stations are a better long term option than coal because they are cheaper to build, more flexible in some respects and have lower emissions. Coal power plants that do not use carbon capture technology may be phased out in Ireland by 2050 for this reason so they are excluded from the options for conventional power generation.If we grow bio-crops in Ireland or import bio-crops from abroad, we can use these crops to fuel biomass power stations rather than using coal or natural gas. Since biomass absorbs carbon dioxide to grow, biomass power plants could help to reduce the carbon put into the atmosphere. If we also use carbon capture technology, where emissions from the plant are captured and stored, biomass power plants could potentially create "negative emissions" by 2050. In this way the carbon in the atmosphere is first captured by the plant tissue and captured again on release in the combustion process and stored underground.
Nuclear power generates around 10% of the world’s electricity and is one of the main sources of electricity in France, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland. It emits about the same amount of carbon as wind power over the course of its lifetime but has the advantage of not being dependent upon the weather and can be switched on or ‘dispatched’ when required.
Ireland has no nuclear power stations and has laws against its use. Given our size, Ireland would only require one nuclear power plant, which could, if permitted, replace our ‘baseload’ coal burning power plant at Moneypoint.
Nuclear plants use controlled reactions to heat water, which turns into high pressure steam to be used to drive a turbine to generate electricity. Although we have a good understanding about how to produce safe and efficient electricity using nuclear power, there is a question over how best to deal with nuclear waste. All nuclear power stations produce waste, some of it remaining dangerous to humans and the environment for thousands of years. Working out how and where to store and dispose this waste safely is an important concern.
Nuclear reactors use uranium as fuel and although supplies are predicted to last much longer than our oil, coal and gas reserves, there is some uncertainty about exactly how long they will last. We do not produce any uranium in Ireland and would need to rely on imports.
There is one option for nuclear power in Ireland where we build one large nuclear power plant by 2050.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a way of reducing carbon emissions from the use of conventional gas and coal in power generation. Effectively 90% of the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion is captured and transported via pipelines and stored in a location from which it can't leak, for example empty oil and gas reservoirs. CCS has yet to be deployed on a large scale, but there are demonstration plants operating in Canada and for carbon sequestration only in the Norwegian North Sea.
The technologies used in CCS (capture, transport and storage) aren't new or unique. They have been used for many years individually (notably in the oil and chemical sectors). For example, there is over 6,000 km of onshore CO2 pipelines in the USA, and over 1 million tonnes of CO2 has been safely transported and stored offshore in Norway each year. The novel aspect is in bringing these technologies together into a single commercial scale operation.
Clean fossil fuel power with CCS may be able to also provide heat through ‘combined heat and power' if the power stations providing the electricity are located near to factories or other buildings with large heat demand. That heat would be in return for a small loss in electricity.
The maximum option for CCS would imply building 5 new CCS power stations by 2050, which would produce more electricity than we do today from our conventional gas plants.
Wind farms generate power with no direct release of carbon into the atmosphere. Ireland’s windy climate means that we are well placed to make good use of this clean and plentiful resource. Greater generation of electricity from wind farms would allow Ireland to become more self-reliant in energy and not import as much fuel from other countries.
However, turbines are reliant on weather conditions. One of the main problems with wind power is ‘intermittency’. When the wind stops or dies down, turbines don’t generate power. If there are no other generation sources to back them up on the system, the lights would start to go out. Therefore, it is important to build other forms of power alongside wind that are not affected by the weather to make sure we can cope in all conditions.
Renewable electricity can also take up a lot of space. At the maximum option for onshore wind there would be nearly 3,500 wind turbines on land. Some people are worried that building lots of wind farms will have a big visual impact on our landscape and that we should consider carefully where we want to locate them to ensure our view of the countryside is not spoiled.
As an island, Ireland is fortunate enough to have plenty of space to install wind turbines in the sea. Offshore wind is often seen as an attractive option because turbines would not interrupt our view or take up land space. The greater freedom to build bigger structures and the stronger wind speeds means that individual offshore turbines can be designed to generate more power than their onshore cousins.
Like wind turbines on land, offshore wind suffers from ‘intermittancy’ - if the wind stops blowing, they stop generating power. Wind generated electricity, like all electricity has to be used as soon as it is produced; while some storage such as batteries can be contemplated, electricity cannot yet be economically stored in very large quantities for later. This means we need to build other power stations to make sure we have a substitute for calm days, or run the risk of suffering blackouts. At the top level of effort, we would have to build 1,000 large offshore wind turbines by 2050, which is a lot of power to back up.
We can also generate clean power through wave and tidal, by deploying machines that use the movement of water to generate electricity. A big advantage of relying on ocean currents is that it does not require the wind to blow or the sun to shine. The intermittancy of wave power is therefore lower than wind or solar.
Although offshore technologies offer a lot of advantages for generating clean power, they are relatively new and for now are an expensive way of reducing emissions when compared to other options. However, the costs should reduce as the technology advances by 2050.
Solar panels for heat or electricity and micro-hydroelectric generation are usually located closer to homes or businesses and can offer an alternative or supplement to traditional centralised power generation. Solar panels, which take the sun's energy to generate electricity or hot water, are already appearing on roofs in Ireland. At the maximum level of effort (level 4), 2050 will see 6.5 square metres of solar panels per person producing electricity in homes. The top effort would also mean that all homes derive 60% of their hot water from solar panels. Competition for roof space between solar panels for electricity ("photovoltaic") or for heat mean that some solar panels may appear as ground based solar farms.We can also control the descent of water in river catchments to provide hydroelectric power to people’s homes, although there is not as much potential for growth in hydroelectricity as we are already using most of the possibilities for hydroelectric power in Ireland.
The biomass used for energy comes in many different forms and can be solid, liquid, or gas. Our forests and farmlands are important sources of bioenergy (e.g. wood off-cuts, straw, grasses, manure, and energy crops). We also include non-agricultural sources of energy from waste, such as food waste and rubbish from homes and businesses, gas created in landfill sites and human sewage.
An important thing to remember about bioenergy that is produced by energy crops (rather than from wood or waste) is the effect on land use and its availabilty for food production.
As the global population grows and demand for food increases, there will be tension between giving up land to grow crops for energy and finding the space to grow enough crops for food. Growing lots of crops for energy in Ireland will mean we have to make new agricultural choices before 2050. It would also mean our landscape changing - some energy crops can grow to a height of over two metres tall before they are harvested.
At the option of level 1 we assume that food production has priority over bioenergy and land is split between activities similar to today. As we move up to level 4 we grow increasing amounts of bioenergy ourselves and therefore need to rely less on imports. At the maximum option, we grow energy crops on land area around the size of County Cork.
Travelling is a big part of life for most of us and accounts for 68% of our oil use in our base year, 2013. The transport sector accounted for around 40% of energy demand in Ireland in the same year.
Changing travel behaviour could make a big contribution to tackling our carbon dioxide emissions, whether that means the daily journey into work or school or a family holiday overseas. If we make more journeys by bus and train (or for those shorter distances, using a bike or walking) it would help reduce levels of emissions created by burning petrol or diesel.
Another option for 2050 is to increase levels of car-pooling which would reduce emissions for individual journeys as people share their cars.
At the maximum option (level 4), we still travel almost as many miles as we do today, but we use our cars much less. One in ten car journeys have an extra person on board, and the distances that people travel by bus and train increase.
Today, most of our transport runs on petrol or diesel. We use some electricity, mainly to power the Dart and Luas. The fuel efficiency of most vehicles has improved in recent years, but we need to do more to reduce emissions from petrol and diesel. By 2050, we may not rely so much on petrol or diesel for our cars and trucks. Low carbon alternatives include electric power, biofuels and hydrogen.
Electric powered cars run using a battery, which is regularly recharged like many other things we already use today. Because they do not burn fuel, electric cars do not emit any carbon dioxide. However, the overall impact of electric cars on emissions will depend on how electricity is generated and how clean the electricity system is (depending on the supply options chosen).
Biofuels produced from renewable sources, like specially grown crops or wood chips, still emit carbon dioxide when burned, but offer the potential for reducing emissions overall. Since plants absorb some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, burning them simply releases the carbon back into the atmosphere.
Hydrogen can be used either directly, or to create electricity, to power cars. Neither process produces harmful emissions, just plain water, although the overall impact on emissions will depend on how we generate the hydrogen.
At the top level of effort (level 4), in 2050 we only drive electric, or use electrified trains and buses. Some buses and lorries will still use diesel, but it will also use diesel from biofuel sources. Biofuels may also be used to power aeroplanes in the future.
Many homes and businesses in Ireland today are heated by oil or gas central heating. By 2050, there will be more technologies available for providing this heat, and doing so with lower carbon emissions. Heating technologies are diverse in terms of their suitability for different types of buildings and locations. They can be broadly split in two groups: electric and non-electric.
Electric options include air- and ground-source heat pumps. Heat pumps are like air conditioners in reverse; they take cold air from outside, and pump warm air into your house. Alternative options include pumping waste heat from power stations, burning biomass in boilers or using ‘biogas’ produced from renewable sources. We can also use solar panels on our roofs to help generate hot water.
In addition to changing our heating technology, we can also reduce emissions by conserving the energy we use. Smart meters allow people to manage and use energy in the home more efficiently. Smart meters have been shown to save between 2% and 9% a year on heating depending on the type of smart meter, the type of heating, and how they are used.
Insulation measures to improve the thermal performance of houses applied to attics, walls and windows reduce the energy we consume in our homes. Other measures to keep the heat in, like heat recovery and draught proofing, can also play a part in helping to tackle our own carbon emissions.
The amount of energy consumed in an average temperature house relative to its size is measured by a Building Energy Rating. Homes that are the best insulated and consume the least energy per square metre are given high ratings like a B or A. Most homes today are in lower C or D categories. To reduce energy consumption in the future we have started to build our new houses at higher standards of insulation. For older houses, we will need to ‘retrofit’ to bring the insulation levels up to scratch.
Building Energy Ratings don’t start and end with insulation. Cleaner and more efficient ways of heating and lighting our homes are also very important. At the maximum level of effort (level 4), almost 80% of homes in Ireland have a B rating or higher.
Electricity in our homes makes our lives comfortable and convenient and is essential in the modern workplace. In 2013, 75% of our electricity was generated from fossil fuels; its CO2 emissions (31%) are almost the same as transport (30%). Electricity demand is again growing in Ireland. Much of this growth and its associated emissions and infrastructure requirements could be offset by strong energy efficiency and energy management policies reflected in the four options.
With advances in technology and design, electrical appliances use a lot less electricity than they did 20 years ago. While manufacturers are continuing to make advancements in improving efficiency, there are big differences in energy consumption between different appliances and different models. In the maximum effort (level 4), all lighting is replaced with the most efficient lighting, appliance manufacturers make technological breakthroughs to improve the energy efficiency of their equipment, and consumers take care about the appliances that they buy and how and when they use equipment.
Making things takes up a lot of energy, in terms of people and fuel. Some industries use more energy than others. Some processes not only require a lot of energy, but also run continuously, all day and every day. Others need to achieve very high temperatures to produce their products. These activities have a big effect on energy demand and carbon emission. Manufacturing activity in Ireland gives rise to 12% of Ireland's CO2 emissions.
Predicting how manufacturing will develop over the next 35 years is difficult. On the one hand, Ireland may become more competitive, resulting in high growth rates in manufacturing. On the other, it may be cheaper to import products from abroad and focus the economy on service provision rather than manufacturing.
The options allow you to choose from three possible worlds of high, stable, or low, growth in manufacturing.
Industry doesn't necessarily have to shrink to reduce its emissions. There are innovative ways for Irish manufacturing to reduce its emissions by 2050. The most obvious of these is by becoming more efficient about how energy is used day-to-day. Many companies have already made improvements and are building on their progress. Some industries, like mining or chemicals, have high emissions related to the processes they use during production. These is ongoing research looking at how these could have a lower impact on the environment.
One major potential gain for industry is through switching the energy it runs on. At the moment, industry uses lots of gas and oil. In time we may be able to electrify many industrial processes, which if combined with a power generation system that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, will bring down emissions. We won’t be able to do this for all industrial processes because some require very high temperatures that electrification cannot achieve – but some switching could still be very useful.