The ESB in 2015 decided to take its largest power station, Moneypoint in Co Clare, out of service – in the single most important move to decarbonise the Irish energy sector.
The plant burns coal, a fossil fuel regarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency as the largest contributor to rising global temperatures.
Its workforce was reduced by almost two-thirds with a view to a 2025 shutdown. However, two gas-fired plants operated by other utilities were out of action for most of 2021, and what had become a rarely-used facility was needed to do a lot more.
Then a security-of-supply crisis hit and Moneypoint, commissioned in 1985 and originally designed to primarily use oil, had to stay online. The issue of security of supply up to 2030 became critical.
The decision to retain Moneypoint until 2029, while changing to oil use, means the State-owned utility is obliged to make the plant available if grid operator EirGrid needs it.
The ESB has been gearing up to help to meet Ireland’s ambitious decarbonisation targets, with Moneypoint scheduled to be the flagship of its multibillion-euro switch to renewables.
That transition, inevitably, will be slowed as it has to retain a large facility using fossil fuels – and, potentially, it could be perceived as undermining its commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2040.
The ESB, for its part, hopes Moneypoint is “the generator of last resort” and insists reaching net zero by 2040 remains the target. Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency has warned that the State’s 2030 climate targets will be missed by a wide margin.
Oil-fired generation was almost eliminated after 2011, but its use has increased since 2021. Moneypoint using oil would add another 14 per cent to the fuel’s share in power generation, according to Friends of the Earth (FoE).
The environment group accepts that “Ireland requires more reserve generation capacity to match peak demand” but says it is vital that “we do not lock ourselves into a dirty, expensive future by building new fossil fuel infrastructure that, once built, provides its own logic for increased use”.
The Government last year reduced from the maximum proposed sectoral emissions cut for electricity from 81 per cent to 75 per cent due to the increased use of Moneypoint.
European Household Energy Index data shows a high Irish dependence on gas, with about half the electricity generated last year coming from the fuel, compared with a European Union average of less than 20 per cent.
Bord Gáis is investing €250 million in two new gas-fired power plants. This increases the risk of fossil fuel infrastructure “lock-in” for decades, but the company insists it can run on a natural gas and hydrogen mix, with ability to convert to 100 per cent hydrogen in the future.
Moneypoint aside, in the longer term we may have a bigger problem with gas, and therefore be more exposed to price swings than other EU countries – yet another reason why Ireland should phase out fossil fuels and scale up wind and solar rapidly.