Energy White Paper
Minister Noel Dempsey and his team can take credit for a number of desirable initiatives announced in the Energy White Paper and for having the courage to shake things up…just a little.
Welcome plans for reform of Ireland’s electricity market should reduce the ESB’s dominance. The creation of an all-island energy market and stronger links to the UK should offer cost savings and a more secure supply.
The need for radical action is compelling. Ireland has now the highest industrial electricity costs in the EU, after Italy, and the quality of Ireland’s energy infrastructure is near the bottom of IMD’s world rankings: 46th, ahead of Romania but behind countries like Turkey, Slovenia and Poland. High energy costs have been quoted by a number of the multinationals shedding jobs and moving their operations out of Ireland.
While steps outlined in the White Paper to stimulate competition in the Irish energy sector are welcome the broad thrust of policy is unlikely to have much impact on the key issue: cost. The goal of producing 33 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020 sounds admirable. But renewables are expensive and will further aggravate the existing cost problem. Ireland’s best hope lies in finding new sources of natural gas and exploration is wisely encouraged.
Without such luck the White Paper policy will further aggravate Ireland’s energy cost problem. Energy policy that is not primarily focussed on the most cost effective energy sources is bad news for jobs and the economy.
The White Paper will not be of much help to Irish plant managers struggling in multinational boardrooms to justify remaining in Ireland. Without the good luck of major gas finds the long-term energy-cost scenario now looks worse rather than better. It strengthens arguments for existing multinationals, burdened by sharply rising costs in Ireland and the maze of unreformed labour laws, to look elsewhere. Coca Cola, for example, which announced a new plant for Wexford, has shelved its €100 million decision, listing Irish electricity costs as a factor.
Finland is the EU’s most competitive country and its energy policies are in stark contrast to Ireland’s. A debate was held some years ago. Two issues dominated: cost and environment. Its study found that peat fired stations produced the most expensive electricity and the worst carbon emissions. Wind energy was almost as expensive as peat. But nuclear was shown to have a remarkable cost advantage over other options: offering electricity at half the cost. The decision to construct a nuclear plant was influenced significantly by environmental concerns: nuclear emits no greenhouse gasses. France took the nuclear option fifty years and now with 59 nuclear power plants is not only self sufficient, but generates electricity so cheaply it exports an annual surplus of some €3 billion.
The French and Finnish examples have led EU governments, with the notable exceptions of Austria, Denmark and Ireland, to see nuclear energy as a response to high oil prices, security of supply and meeting carbon emissions targets. Plans for building new nuclear power plants and reducing energy costs are at various stages of development right across Europe. Earlier this month Lithuania signed an agreement to build a new nuclear plant that will meet its own needs and export surplus electricity to Poland, Latvia and Estonia.
Where is Ireland? Well, in the same strange terrain it found itself after banning the books of its great authors and later contraceptives. Ireland has also banned nuclear generated electricity. Or as the White Paper puts it
The Government will maintain the statutory prohibition on nuclear generation in Ireland. The Government believes that for reasons of security, safety, economic feasibility and system operation, nuclear generation is not an appropriate choice for this country.
No justification is given for the unsustainable statement and we are expected to accept the po-faced Vatican –like proclamation that nuclear is ‘not an appropriate choice’.
The hypocrisy of the White Paper position is highlighted by Minister Dempsey’s Business & Finance interview in which he is quoted as saying just weeks before launching the White Paper:
As far as the existing interconnection goes, we are already using nuclear power generated in the UK. The reality of our opposition to the nuclear energy is that it is an Irish problem – an emotive problem rather than a rational one…From the Irish point of view, we simply decided not to site nuclear stations here based on simple emotive arguments against it.
The White Paper reflects this and has permitted emotion rather than reason to dominate policy on a central issue. It has done nothing to explain why the emotions are ill founded and what the rational position should be. The rational case is suppressed and Irish policy points the country towards continuing to be a lily-livered and irritating neighbour: officially objecting to the UK nuclear programme while at the same time planning to benefit from it.
The Greens in Ireland are opposed to nuclear power but are wrong-footed by the increasing number of their scientifically-literate colleagues in other countries who have done a u-turn on nuclear. For example one of the founders of Greenpeace, the distinguished British environmentalist James Lovelock states
‘Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen…By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy.’
And the French environmentalist Bruno Comby believes that
“When you look at the fundamental facts, nuclear energy is the only energy which is available in large quantities and is able to deliver the energy which our industrial society needs in a clean manner. In fact it is the only way to do that”
Pressure for abandoning Ireland’s nonsensical ban is mounting. Groups that have examined Ireland’s energy options rationally are starting to speak up. Forfas points out that Ireland is more heavily dependent on imported oil than almost every other European country and should be considering the possible use of nuclear power in the medium to long term. In January ICTU recommended that serious consideration be given to nuclear power for Ireland. IBEC has recently called on the Government to commission a study into the potential of nuclear power and re-evaluate its position based on this evidence.
The next generation of nuclear technology has arrived. Construction is underway near Pretoria of a demonstration pebble bed modular reactor. A cluster of the 170 MW modules can feed a central generator giving unprecedented flexibility for small countries. The helium coolant leaves the reactor at 950C, hot enough to release hydrogen from water: offering future prospects for an emissions-free hydrogen economy.
A White Paper designed to guide Ireland’s energy needs to 2020 should at least consider the options that are emerging and have the gumption to recognise that Ireland’s ban on nuclear power is going to go the same way as other notorious bans. In some few years time this ban will be seen as hilariously ridiculous as the ban on foreign games, condoms and James Joyce.