Gas demand must be rapidly reduced to improve Ireland’s energy security and to ensure the Government’s climate actions are credible, according to analysis by MaREI energy centre in University College Cork.
Gas should not be considered the “transition fuel” as the economy decarbonises, though there is a limited need for gas-fired power generation, it concludes.
Commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FoE), MaREI considered electricity and gas demand up to 2050. TDs and Senators will be briefed on the findings by lead author Prof Hannah Daly and FoE head of policy Jerry MacEvilly at Leinster House on Tuesday.
While an increase in gas-fired electricity generation capacity is needed – to replace older polluting coal and peat-fired generation – use of that capacity will have to decrease rapidly to stay within legally binding carbon budgets, it says. “The share of time that gas capacity is used must be more than halved this decade for emissions to reduce in line with the sectoral emissions ceilings.”
“The source of Ireland’s energy insecurity and high prices is caused by over-dependence on fossil fuels, which are also the main cause of the climate emergency,” said Prof Daly. “Energy security measures must be aligned with climate policy, which requires rapid reductions in the consumption of all fossil fuels this decade.”
MaREI is a research centre for energy, climate and marine, and a leading body on energy modelling in Ireland. Based at the Environmental Research Institute at UCC, It has carried out extensive analysis for the Government and the European Commission to inform energy and climate policy actions – and for the private sector.
The good news, she believed, was energy transition measures – building domestic renewables, improving energy efficiency, reducing car dependency and district heating – all supported energy security, lower bills and brought wider societal and economic benefits.
“This research blows out of the water the misleading line that ‘we will have gas for decades to come’. Gas can no longer be treated as a type of benign necessity. Ireland is a facing a three-part energy crisis of affordability, [carbon] pollution and supply as a result of our gas addiction,” Mr MacEvilly said. “All the evidence shows gas is not the ‘transition fuel’ peddled by industry.”
A rethink on the current approach to energy security was needed, Mr MacEvilly said. “The Government must not simply accept developments that risk locking-in high gas demand, particularly the proliferation of data centres, which are currently projected to use around a third of all our electricity by 2030.”
A more critical and nuanced assessment was needed, based on climate obligations, before such developments were approved, he said. “If Ireland is building any new gas-fired power plants, the Government must put in place robust regulations to limit their use.”
Reducing gas demand required a rethink of assumptions around gas infrastructure and gas supply as the debate was too focused on ensuring supply “without properly considering the benefits of demand reduction”, he said. “Energy security is the balance of supply and demand, not simply chasing supply to meet ever-increasing demand.”
Ireland’s carbon budget obligation requires demand for fossil methane gas “misleadingly labelled ‘natural gas’” fall by 40 per cent this decade and a further 80 per cent in the 2030s, MaREI says. This means by 2040 gas demand is reduced by 93 per cent in the power sector, 85 per cent in the residential sector and 67 per cent in enterprise.
Huge growth in data centre electricity demand would substantially increase the challenges of meeting sectoral ceilings, it warns.
The necessary reduction in gas-fired electricity use cannot be achieved without a very rapid acceleration in renewable electricity capacity, the report added.
Any failure to rapidly deploy far greater renewable electricity capacity would lead to an increased utilisation rate of natural gas capacity, with a consequent increase in emissions and risk of breaching ceilings.
EirGrid and Gas Networks Ireland produce projections of future electricity generation capacity and natural gas demand “without taking proper account of carbon budgets or the long-term net-zero commitment”, it notes. The result is projections of demand which risk being misinterpreted by policymakers and industry as being compatible with legally binding climate commitments, it warns.
High gas prices and threats to energy security have placed additional significance on rapidly accelerating Ireland’s sustainable energy transition. However, MaREI says the electricity system faces multiple interconnected challenges: strong growth in demand from data centres and carbon budget obligations will require it to rapidly phase out fossil fuels while delivering far more electricity this decade.