Getting energy and electricity to net-zero by 2050: key takeaways

Published by Kayle Crosson on

31 March 2021 

You might have already seen it – but earlier today the MaREI Centre published their report (commissioned by Wind Energy Ireland) on how to get Ireland’s energy and electricity to net zero emissions by 2050. 

There’s a lot to unpack in it, so we tried our best to do it for you. We went through the whole document with a fine-tooth comb and have picked out some key points and takeaways. 

Want a full read of it yourself? You can do that, too

(And just a quick note before we get started here – this is all about energy, electricity, transport, and heating. The report does not cover our largest emitting sector, which is agriculture. Towards the end of the document, it notes that it is working off the assumption that climate neutrality in land use and agriculture is also achieved.) 

Right now, our energy sector is dominated by oil, followed by natural gas 

So before we get into all things renewable, the report paints a pretty comprehensive picture of where we are at the moment when it comes to our oil and gas usage.

We currently import €5 billion worth of oil. In 2018, oil ended up accounting for just under half of our primary energy. We mostly use it for transport, but it’s also used in residential heating and the industrial sector. 

Natural gas has the next biggest piece of the pie, and we mainly use it for electricity generation, industry, services, and residential heating. 

And when it comes to how we get these fossil fuels, they are for the most part imported.

In 2006, our import dependency peaked at 90 per cent and stayed roughly close to that figure until 2016 when the Corrib gas field opened. 

So due to this development, our import dependency fell to 69 per cent by 2019, but it’s still a high figure. It is however expected to climb back upwards as Corrib gas production declines. 

We have a long way to go when it comes to renewable electricity capacity…

So this takeaway is split into two, hence the ellipse. 

Right off the bat the report tells us we need to electrify our heating and transport systems, which means that our current electricity demand will grow by three to fourfold. 

(And that seems to be without taking into account the growing demand from data centres – but we’ll get into that later). 

The authors of the report say we’ll need 25 gigawatts (GW) of renewable electricity capacity by 2050. To put that into context, we currently only have a 4.5 GW capacity which has taken around 15 years to deliver. 

But, they also say that all of the technologies, concepts and interventions required to reach net zero by 2050 currently exist today in some form. So it’s a challenge, but in their opinion, one that is doable. 

…and it looks like building this capacity will be a big job creator

Getting to net zero by 2050 for energy and electricity could create “at least” 50,000 jobs in Ireland, according to their analysis. 

Breaking down these figures a bit, the report projects that approximately 25,000 jobs would be created to retrofit buildings, another 25,000 jobs (at least) would be created to expand renewable electricity capacity, and around 5000 jobs would be created to electrify heat and transport demands. 

The authors have also proposed the opening of a Centre of Excellence to train off-shore and on-shore wind development and to provide upskill training for construction workers, plumbers and electricians. 

There’s a lot that needs to be done in the next decade 

In order to reach this mid-century goal, a lot needs to happen in the next ten years. 

The report stresses that solid fuel use and oil in the residential sector must be eliminated by 2030, and this will require a mass-scale of retrofitting homes to a B2 BER rating and a change in heating systems to electricity-driven heat pumps. 

There’s a big price tag on home retrofitting, however. Assuming you have a D or an E BER level property, it can cost anywhere between €21,000 to €39,000 to retrofit. 

By 2030, through scaling up of renewable production, wind and solar-generated electricity will account for 72 per cent of the entire sector, according to the report’s projections. 

Energy security can be (almost) secured by 2050 through renewables

Another thing that renewables can bring (alongside reducing our emissions) is securing our energy supply. 

The report projects that our national energy security across all sectors will increase as we scale-up our renewable generation and simultaneously reduce our need for fuel imports. 

By 2050, it finds that our fuel imports could plummet to just 5 per cent, a stark contrast to where it currently stands at 70 per cent. 

Climate action can offer benefits beyond just emissions reductions… 

Retrofitting homes would reduce energy poverty throughout the country, meaning that the 400,000 families living in energy poverty would be properly able to heat their homes properly and keep them warm, too. 

The reduced use of fossil fuels will also have beneficial public health outcomes due to improved air quality. 

(Side note: curious about air pollution? We have an explainer on solid fuels and air quality that we put out not too long ago). 

…However, there are important questions around equity and data centres

One notable thing that the report does not address is equity issues around retrofitting. 

Patrick Bresnihan, a lecturer in Maynooth University, raised this concern in a tweet today and pointed out that little attention is given to the question of who will be able to foot the bill of a €21,000 to €39,000 retrofit for their home. 

He also noted that there was little discussion on the immense energy demand increase data centres are set to bring up to 2030 and beyond. 

In an op-ed for the earlier this week, Prof Bresnihan highlighted that while data centres are only responsible for 1.58 per cent of Ireland’s carbon emissions at the moment, they are expected to account for 29 per cent of energy demand by 2028.

He also pointed out that EirGrid has warned that by 2026 the demand for data centres and electric cars could well exceed Ireland’s energy supply. 

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