Ireland has always been known for its lush green landscape. But turning its energy a matching shade has been a longer road.
The country long relied heavily on peat, its only domestically produced source of “fossil” fuel. Peat is a partially decayed plant matter that grows in bogs on that familiar countryside, and it takes generations to grow. It is milled and compressed at high temperatures before being formed into briquettes to be burned. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change no longer officially classifies peat as a fossil fuel, it notes that its greenhouse gas emissions have been shown in life cycle studies to be similar to those of coal, oil and natural gas. And when nations report their emissions, combustion of peat is included in the totals with fossil fuels.
Peat is found around the world, but Ireland and Finland are among the world’s largest industrial producers of peat, which is the first stage in the formation of coal.
There are many problems inherent in using peat for fuel. Many rare organisms have been found to live in the unique ecosystem of the peat wetlands, and they are destroyed when the peat is harvested. Also, peat has been found to release methane gas and carbon into the atmosphere even before it is burned. The unoxidized carbon that hides in the bogs is used for smokeless combustion.
But Ireland has been trying to scale back the use of its once dominant fuel source, and plans to stop using peat between 2025 and 2030. Instead, it’s focusing on sources of renewable energy, including wind, hydropower and biomass. Bord na Mona, a state-owned company that manages peat production and peat-fired plants, has been focusing on generating wind power.
The country has seen big changes in the amount of peat energy it’s used in the last two decades. A report issued last year by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) examined Irish energy use and supply trends from 1990 to 2010, with an emphasis on 2010’s patterns.
Peat use dropped by 43 percent from 1990 to 2010, and by about 3 percent in 2010 alone, according to the report. Peat’s share in primary energy fell from about 15 percent to 5 percent in those 20 years.
Oil is the dominant energy source for Ireland, with a 50 percent share, followed by natural gas, with a 32 percent share. Other sources included coal, with an 8 percent share, and renewables (including hydro, wind and biomass), accounted for 4.6 percent total.
Though its share is still relatively low, since 1990, renewable energy has grown by 305 percent.
While a lot of the effort in Ireland centers on changing its energy sources, one effort that’s had a concrete payoff so far has been an aggressive drive for energy efficiency, particularly in homes.
A huge number of new homes were built during the rapid economic expansion of the Celtic Tiger years. As a result, energy demand grew by 29 percent in the Irish residential sector between 1990 and 2007.
In a program to address those costs, more than 100,000 homes across Ireland were upgraded with a combination of improved insulation, high efficiency boilers and heating controls, in a program that ran between 2008 and 2010, SEAI said. The result? Each home is expected to save an average of $590 (450 euro) per year, and total benefits to the country as a whole range from $139 million to $678 million (106 million to 518 million euros).
The drive to continue energy efficiency upgrades throughout Ireland faces difficulties, however. Although the SEAI aimed to continue funding efficiency upgrades as part of its Better Energy Homes program launched last year, the amount of grants were slashed, prompting criticism from the building improvement industry. The cuts, however, were part of a broad set of austerity moves forced upon Ireland as a condition of the EU-International Monetary Fund loan package that kept the nation afloat after the cost of its bank bailout overwhelmed state finances.
It remains to be seen how much today’s financial woes will affect Ireland’s hopes for greener, more efficient use of energy in the future.