Published: Sun, 29 March 2020
“I think the Parliament took the right decision, but I also wanted to say very clearly that we will condition that decision to make sure that we do not invest money in assets that will then be lost for the future”
These are the words of the European Commission Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, speaking to the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee on the 18th of February.
Mr. Timmermans is the man who has been leading recent efforts to put in place the long-term Climate Action policies and measures that should see the European Union aim to achieve a reduction of at least 55% in Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2030, and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In this instance, the Vice President was talking about Parliament’s recent decision, by an emphatic 443 votes to 169, not to object to the list of EU Projects of Common Interest (PCI).
Why, then, is Mr. Timmermans’ position so at odds with some of the anger directed at MEPs who made decision not to object to the list?
To answer this question, I think it is important to look at what the PCIs actually are. According to the European Commission, the PCIs are key cross-border infrastructure projects, which are intended to help the EU achieve its energy policy and climate objectives. That is, ensuring affordable, secure and sustainable energy for all citizens, and the long-term decarbonisation of the economy in accordance with the Paris Agreement. There are 151 projects on the latest list, with just 32 gas projects included (down 40% from the previous list).
The Irish projects included on the list are the following: the Silvermines Hydroelectric Power Station in Tipperary; new electricity interconnectors between Ireland and the UK, and the Celtic Interconnector between Ireland and France; the Ervia Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project in Cork; and, perhaps most controversially, the proposed Shannon Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Ballylongford, Co. Kerry.
MEPs who voted to object to the list voted against all of these projects; the projects are not voted individually, but as a package.
Projects that are given PCI status are generally considered to be important for the overall functioning of the European Energy system. Much of the criticism of the list relates to its inclusion of gas projects. While it would be preferable not to give policy support to fossil fuels, the European Commission are clear that the gas projects that are included are in line with the role of gas in meeting the EU’s decarbonisation objectives, and that the implementation of the gas PCIs would ensure a well-interconnected and shock-resilient gas grid by the early 2020s.
Ireland’s energy system is a good example of this role of gas. Thanks to an ambitious approach to renewable electricity taken in recent years, and notably the great work and world-leading expertise of EirGrid, Ireland is on track to having an extremely impressive 70% renewables on the electricity grid by 2030. Additionally, at various points in recent months, when the right weather conditions were present, Ireland was powered completely by renewable electricity. Furthermore, our large old coal plant in Clare, Moneypoint, went weeks on end without being turned on, making significant savings on emissions.
All great to see, and proof that our energy system is moving in the right direction.
However, the summer months can tell a different story. According to Gas Networks Ireland, in summer 2018, up to 90% of electricity was generated using natural gas due to very low winds. Our renewables are variable, and gas continues to play an important role in keeping the lights on during these periods by allowing for quick ramp up and flexibility when there is very low wind. This is important; think of what would happen if we had periods of no electricity in Ireland.
It is also where some of the Irish PCI projects can be vitally important. Hydroelectricity in the Silvermines will be an important means of storing renewable electricity to be used when needed. Additionally, cross-border interconnection with France and the UK improves the security of our electricity supply and better enables us to increase our share of renewables, exporting excess renewable electricity. For the gas that we do have to use – and according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), gas will be the mainstay for security of supply as Ireland accelerates its transition to a low-carbon economy – Ervia’s CCS project has the potential to capture 100% of the CO2 emissions from gas fired electricity production.
This brings us to the Shannon LNG project. This is a project that has recently come to be associated with fracked gas; that it will bring fracked gas from the US to Ireland, despite us banning fracking here just a couple of years ago. I don’t think there is any point in trying to deny the increase in shale gas in the US comes from fracking, and that it is possible that some of this could come onto the Irish gas grid as LNG, depending on the origin of a particular shipment.
At the same time, we should look at the global market. According to the IEA, LNG will overtake pipeline gas as the main way of trading gas over long distances by the late 2020s. The IEA say that LNG import infrastructure would substantially improve Ireland’s security of supply by providing direct access to the global LNG market. This would give us the ability to buy gas from anywhere around the world, fracked or non-fracked; something we cannot avail of with our current infrastructure.
Most maritime EU countries have already built LNG import infrastructure, with only Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Croatia and Germany in the same position as Ireland; although all five countries have proposed LNG projects at various stages of planning.
It should also be pointed out that we likely already import fracked gas. Ireland is largely dependent on a single gas supply point from the UK, and when the Corrib field off the coast of Mayo is depleted in a few years’ time, we will again be close to 100% dependent on the UK to supply our gas needs. The UK has three LNG terminals, with LNG making up 13% of its gas imports. There is no way for us to choose the origin of gas we import at the single entry point to the Irish grid from the UK in Scotland; therefore, there is almost certainly fracked gas already on our grid, supplied from the UK system.
I am not making an environmental case for the Shannon LNG project here; I am not even making an economic case for the North Kerry region, or a security of supply case for the island of Ireland, although both are relevant in the overall discussion. What I am saying, however, is that context is important.
We need to look more broadly at proposed projects and see how they might fit into the overall planning of the Irish and European energy system. To this end, I also welcome Vice President Timmermans’ commitment to undertake a full assessment of all projects on the PCI list to ensure they are indeed in the ‘common interest’.
Does Ireland’s energy market or our security of supply require an LNG import terminal? Do we need an interconnection with France, or a Hydroelectricity station in Tipperary? These questions are not for me to decide, but at some point, a decision will need to be made about whether or not we are content to be entirely dependent on one supply line from the UK – now a third country and no longer subject to EU law.
On complex issues such as energy, and the ways in which we will move to a system based on renewable energy in the years ahead, we must be careful to avoid over-simplification of issues in the name of political point scoring. We must ensure decisions are made on the basis of system needs and comprehensive planning for a low-carbon future, rather than by allowing single-issue protests to dictate policy direction.