Standing in the west of Ireland, almost flattened by gale force winds, peering out through the horizontal rain at those enormous Atlantic waves crashing ashore, don’t lament your sodden staycation, rather consider this: you are experiencing the future wealth of the country.
In the 21st century, Ireland is to renewable energy what 20th century Saudi Arabia was to fossil fuels. The only difference is that unlike the Gulf States, where oil will run out, our energy sources will not deplete. Our island’s wind, wave and tidal potential in generating renewable energy, is unparalleled.
Perched up here in the North Atlantic, we are sitting on a gold mine of renewable energy. As the world switches from carbon to renewables, Ireland is blessed by what we cursed for years, our weather.
This week, the UN Panel on Climate Change produced a shocking report confirming what most suspected: climate change is here, it’s getting worse and burning fossil fuels is the problem. In case you haven’t had a chance to read it, here are some of the most alarming facts from the document.
In 2019, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were higher than at any point in around 2 million years. Meanwhile, concentrations of methane and nitric acid were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years. The earth’s surface temperature is now 1.1°C above the pre-industrial average of 1850-1900 – the highest level in the past 125,000 years. It is believed that 1.07°C of this increase in surface temperatures – so almost all – can be attributed to human activity.
Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850. Late-summer Arctic sea ice coverage has been lower over the past decade than at any point over the past 1,000 years, while glaciers are retreating at a pace not seen in at least 2,000 years. The rate of ice sheet loss has increased by a factor of four since the early 1990s.
The earth’s oceans are heating up more rapidly than at any point over the past 11,000 years. Global mean sea levels have increased by 0.2m from 1901-2018, with human activity very likely the main driver of this trend. The pace of this rise is faster than at any point in the past 3,000 years or so.
The upshot of all this is that if we continue to burn fossil fuels, the world will heat up so dramatically that large parts of the planet will be unliveable. Extreme weather patterns, floods, droughts, extreme heat and fires that we have seen in the past few weeks – from California to Germany and Greece – will become more commonplace.
The planet could experience a greenhouse effect of between 2.5 and 4 degrees. This is terrifying as the report estimates that “every additional 0.5°C of global warming is clearly linked with an uptick in the intensity and frequency of extreme heatwaves, heavy precipitation events and agricultural/ecological droughts”.
The hope is to hit a central target of the Paris accord from 2015 – for global carbon emissions to be net zero by 2050. Carbon neutrality means having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. If this can be achieved, the authors of the report believe that we can limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. On the most optimistic view, air quality would rapidly improve and, after a few decades, global temperatures might stabilise.
However, to achieve these targets, every single one of us must change our behaviour. The world must rapidly wean itself off fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. Ireland has an opportunity to be a world leader in renewable energy. Imagine any other country, gifted such an environmental bonanza of wind, wave and tidal potential, failing to act on it?
Our ambitions should be to make the country the renewable energy epicentre of Europe. In order to achieve this, we should be reorienting our industrial strategy to wind, wave and tidal energy projects; building infrastructure and technology, and training a 21st century workforce of engineers, technicians, marine experts and scientists to work in this new field.
The Western seaboard, from Donegal to Dingle, could become the world’s most innovative on and offshore energy hub, creating an entirely new industrial base here. In the same way oil transformed the Gulf States, renewables could transform Ireland.
The potential is staggering.
According to a report from Wind Energy Ireland (WEI), floating turbines have the potential to transform Ireland into “a European renewable energy superpower”. Ireland could be generating 5,000MW of offshore wind energy by 2030. That’s enough to power 4.5 million homes with electricity for a full year. Our housing stock at the moment is just over 2 million homes.
WEI believe that, with the right policies, Ireland’s wind potential is some 30,000MW. In 2018, wind provided 85 per cent of Ireland’s renewable electricity – the second largest source, behind natural gas – and 30 per cent of our total electricity demand. At 4,000 MW per year, we are already producing 10 times more wind energy than we did in 2005.
According to the Irish Marine Institute, we are also blessed with one of the richest climates in the world when it comes to wave and tidal energy and Ireland could get up to 75 per cent of our electricity requirements from wave energy alone.
And just in case the east coast thinks it won’t get a look in, because of the relatively strong tidal conditions driven by forces in the Irish Sea, St Georges Channel and the North channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland, tidal energy opportunities are concentrated on the east coast of the island.
In total, a recent report estimates that there is some 615 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year of harvestable energy from tidal streams, ocean and riverine currents. That’s about 20 times our current electricity usage.
All around the world, the best engineers and designers are working away trying to solve the evident technical difficulties in harnessing, storing and exporting renewable energy. These problems will be solved, because the planet’s future is at stake. Ireland is in pole position to be to renewable energy what Texas was to oil.
So the next time you are in Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Mayo, Clare or Kerry cursing the wind, waves and rain, think again: these violent Atlantic elements are the key to a whole new industry that will power Ireland for the 21st century and beyond.