As energy crisis bites, way to bolster renewable output

Ireland, like many other European countries, is experiencing the early phases of an energy crisis. But judging the Irish energy system, based on any set of evaluative criterion, is anything but straight forward. 

 Is the price of the energy the sole criterion? For consumers it arguably is. Access or security of supply is also vital and there the Irish system has been arguably badly exposed, albeit so have many other Western economies. The final criterion is sustainability, the green credentials of the system itself. There Ireland has a long way to go, but has made progress with renewables in the electricity sector where 42% of output is renewably sourced. This mix of cost/equity, security and sustainability form what is called the energy trilemma, a type of energy credit rating. Ireland ranks highly on this measure, 11th in the world according to the World Energy Council.

 But a health warning is necessary- this was before winter 2022. Revisiting the data and rankings post winter 2022 will be interesting, although many countries will move downward in unison. Those in the industry, from Electric Ireland to SSE Airtricity, all contribute to the outcome of the three tests referred to above, as does government policy and global energy demand. 

Ireland’s problem has been, like in many other places, the rate of replacement of fossil fuel capacity. Ireland has 4,307MW of installed wind capacity. About 20 years ago it had virtually none. But the rate of replacement is still very modest and there is only one operational off-shore wind farm at the time of writing (Arklow Wind Bank). Ireland is adding 337MW of wind on average per year, but in 2020 (possibly due to Covid) it only added 180MW. Hard to credit, but Ireland has actually being slowing down the amount of wind (the largest source of renewable for electricity purposes) it has been adding to the system in recent years. The ending of Covid restrictions, or at least loosening of them, is likely to help drive a recovery however. Whatever about installed capacity, whether any of us like it or not, the amount of wind that actually blows each year is germane to the overall availability, reliability and cost of energy in Ireland. 

In that regard, the wind energy sector uses a key metric- capacity factor. This is the average power generated by wind turbine, divided by its peak capacity. Or put more simply, how often a turbine is producing energy, compared to it if was producing all the time. In Ireland in 2020, this was 31% and generally moves in a range of between 25 and 32%. Essentially one can think of this as the productivity of wind. Other countries are windier to start out with (Scotland for example), while other countries have installed a lot of wind (Sweden and Norway) compared to Ireland. But still much of the annual performance of the wind sector is somewhat capricious. But energy planners are not powerless to adjust the productivity performance. One way to nudge productivity up is simply to install more capacity, another is to build more wind offshore which is more reliable, and the final way is to build higher wind turbines, so they produce more wind and face less obstacles. That may place questions for the planning system. Either way, if Ireland is to bolster its rate of replacement of fossil fuel capacity, it will probably have to do all three. 

Emmet Oliver

  2. Data on Ireland and other countries’ performance on energy is at:
  3.  The performance per capita is tracked by the Our World in Data service:

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