Sunday, 30 December 2007

The future starts here

We are at last embracing alternative energies and sustainable building, but will it prove too little, too late, asks Michael Viney.

It was the UN's inspiration back in the bright Millennium days to make 2008 the International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE), thus providing us now with a focus for our common angst. Intended as an upbeat festival of the earth sciences, passing on "the exciting knowledge we possess about our planet", the IYPE will be just as likely to remind us of things we wish we didn't need to know. But better to change one light bulb, as they say, than curse the gathering CO2.

My usual slice of the environment has its own urgencies to do with climate change - loss of rare Irish plants and birds, species drifting out of sync with their food supply, invading alien insects, all that. But it is a couple of decades since my first column on global warming and another couple since reporting on the visions of enthusiasts for wind and solar power and biogas from cattle slurry. An ESB engineer sticks in my mind, laying lone siege to this newspaper for years with plans for using waste heat from Ringsend to warm half of central Dublin.

There have always been people who wanted society to learn from nature and to copy its vital recycling of waste and energy. Half a century ago, Seán MacBride was a saintly bore on the need to use wind and wave power to generate electricity. What a wry grimace might be drawn from his ghost by the "action plans" that now tumble over each other - all eminently sensible, principled, life-enhancing: just a few generations late.

Given the first-ever Minister for the Environment to actually want the job for the right reasons, and another Green in charge of energy and natural resources, some of the plans should actually happen. The worst-polluting cars purchased after July 1st will now face an annual road tax of €2,000. Even the essential carbon tax, proposed in 2002 (but abandoned in 2004 in sudden political panic) will again go down to the wire "in the coming months".

ALONG WITH THE reality of warmer, wetter deluges at home and assorted climate catastrophes abroad, the need for real changes in the national lifestyle is gaining acceptance: transport, construction, industry, farming, home energy, landscape - even business - are in for some measure of reform.

A little has already begun. The first Dublin buses are running on a modest biodiesel blend. The first biomass boilers are warming schools. The first 20 big State buildings are being converted from oil to wood pellets from State forests, thus saving more than 1,500 tonnes of CO2 a year, as well as something off the national import bill. The next computers in many offices will be eco-friendly laptops, rather than the ever-humming desktop hives.

Seminal to much of this is the Bioenergy Action Plan, hatched by a task force chaired by former minister for energy and natural resources, Noel Dempsey, before Eamon Ryan took over his office. A big part of the job was to see where all the biofuel is going to come from. Ireland is committed to giving it 5.75 per cent of the national fuel market by 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020.

JUST HOW MUCH land will be needed for even these modest goals? The way technology is now, liquid fuels are made only from annual arable crops. A lot of the tillage land that has recently been grassed over in the southeast can be ploughed up again, plus the set-aside bits and the fields that used to grow sugar beet. But rapeseed oil for biodiesel needs a one-in-four-year rotation, so the long-term target of 180,000 hectares for this crop alone turns into 720,000 hectares, or twice the entire present area of tillage.

That rotation would produce an extra million tonnes of cereal, an awful lot to market. Much of it, presumably, could be made into ethanol. But the EU's 10 per cent substitution target by 2020 would have such huge land implications that biofuel imports seem inevitable. Dempsey's team called on the EU for "sustainability" standards - worrying, one hopes, about Asian forests being cleared to grow palm-oil, or Mexican peasants losing their food crops of maize (not to mention transport halfway round the globe).

While rapeseed is turning much of Ireland yellow, what of the promised savannahs of miscanthus, the rustling thickets of super willow? Just as soon as their cellulose can be worked upon by enzymes at the right sort of capital cost, they will be "second-generation biofuels" for transport (even grass is in prospect, which could suit Ireland well). Until then, they are biomass crops, destined mainly as "co-firing" fuel grown around the three peat power stations. These burn a total of three million tonnes of peat a year - a finite resource - and every 30,000 hectares of biomass could replace 10 per cent of it. In the new, rather desperate, scenario, every little helps.

In an echo of MacBride, Ryan is happy to extol Ireland as "the Saudi Arabia of ocean and wind energy - and it's all free!" As power flows from the first seven giant turbines of Airtricity's Arklow Bank wind farm, 10km off the coast, his party will expect him to bring in price supports, and press for the project's full development - enough turbines to power 400,000 homes and save more than 1 million tonnes of CO2 a year. Airtricity, privately owned and with the former Bord na Móna chief, Eddie O'Connor, at the helm, is now the Ryanair of wind energy, already worth €1 billion and full of plans for a European "supergrid" of offshore windfarms.

Finding durable, cost-effective ways of using waves to drive turbines has taken an unconscionable time and large amounts of money, but there are now definite signs of native progress. It didn't take surfers to show us that the west coast has some of the best waves in Europe, but measuring their whereabouts, energy and reliability has needed some painstaking science.

In 2005, the Marine Institute and Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) commissioned a wave atlas, plotting the contours of accessible energy around the coast at different times of year and its theoretical contribution to the grid. The figures came out at 75 per cent of the electricity we used in 2006.

This colossal resource has constraints: the cost-effectiveness of the technology; the amount of power that can be connected from western seaboard locations; finding ways to share the grid with intermittent wind power. Problems of storage and backup are already a bottleneck to present commitments to more than triple wind energy, with a further 6,000 megawatts in waiting. The "massive investment" Ryan says is needed to upgrade the grid could be €1 billion or more.

Meanwhile, the Marine Institute and SEI have been backing Irish entrepreneurs in developing large-scale ocean generators. Two scaled-down prototypes, created by Wavebob of Maynooth and Ocean Energy of Cork, have survived winter waves at the institute's test site in Galway Bay while successfully producing a respectable trickle of electricity. Now they will be built to full size and tested with even more rigour.

ONE WAY OF reducing energy demand is simply to save it. The coming year will see a new action plan to inspire the public sector, helped by all the suggestions that should have been in by November. Everyone from gardaí to pensions clerks to mandarins in their panelled eyries will aim to meet the special 33 per cent energy reduction target for the public service "in order to demonstrate its leadership and exemplar role".

"Training in green procurement" will vet the tenders for €10 billion worth of products and services: value for money will mean energy efficiency and high environmental standards, from draught-proof swing doors to recycled memo-pads. From next July, all new public service buildings will have their energy assessed and certified: it seems unlikely, for example, that the Office of Public Works will lease any more space in new buildings that burn oil, need air-conditioning or have the lights on all day.

"Modal shift" are words we may have to get used to in 2008, when the Sustainable Travel and Transport Action Plan is unveiled by Minister for Social and Family Affairs Martin Cullen.

"Demand side management," asserts the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan, "includes soft support measures for influencing modal shift and behavioural change . . . " Gibberish like this (to do with our choice of transport, apparently) has not appeared, mercifully, in the Power of One, the campaign to convince each of us to change the way we live.

The Irish Times

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