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Coal-burning Moneypoint might be key to Ireland’s energy future

ESB dinosaur built in the 1970s will soon become the State’s premier renewable hub

To understand Ireland’s energy dilemma – where we’ve come from and where we’re going – the ESB’s Moneypoint plant on the Shannon estuary is a good starting point. The west Clare facility, for many years the country’s largest electricity generating plant, was commissioned in the 1970s in reaction to the oil price shocks and specifically to reduce Ireland’s dependence on oil.

Back then the global economy was sent into a nosedive on the back of surging oil prices and there was an understandable desire to lower or at least dilute the reliance on oil. The parallel with the current period is striking.

At full output, with its three internal units running to capacity, Moneypoint can consume 7,000 tonnes of coal per day – about two million tonnes a year – and has, at various points in the past, provided as much as 40 per cent of the State’s annual energy needs. In more recent times, this has dwindled to 2 per cent.

With coal as its primary fuel, it is believed to be the country’s single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and an eyesore in terms of the State’s climate objectives.


The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't isolate emissions from the plant but at its peak in 1996 coal burning resulted in the release of 5.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 10 per cent of the State's total emissions that year. Most of it came directly Moneypoint.

For more than two decades, the facility has been slated for decommissioning and/or redevelopment but the plans and the deadlines have come and gone and the plant remains operational, a reflection of our stop-start switch to renewables and the State’s equivocatory position on climate.

Kyoto protocol

The first plan to close it down dates back to the late 1990s when the then government was tooling up a climate change strategy to meet its commitments under the 1997 Kyoto protocol.

Since that period, coal burning and power generation at Moneypoint has waned. In 2019, it burned just 20,000 tonnes of coal, the lowest level on record. But that downward trajectory came to an abrupt halt last year when lower-than-expected wind and the temporary shutdown of two gas plants at Huntsdown and Whitegate necessitated a greater call on Moneypoint's power. "In 2021, a combination of factors saw an increase in electricity generation from Moneypoint to meet demand on the Irish electricity system, resulting in over one million tonnes of coal being burned over that year," the ESB said in a statement to The Irish Times. "We have seen that trend continue into the early part of 2022."

The company's giant coal-burning plant has also stoked controversy over where it sources its coal. Three years ago, ESB came under pressure from human rights groups over its importation of coal from the Cerrejon mine in Columbia, which had been under the microscope for human rights violations. As a result, it switched to importing coal from Russia but now finds itself having to swiftly reverse out of the Russian market to abide by European Union sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine.

Energy security has become a key focus for the State, with EirGrid warning of possible electricity shortfalls over the next five winters

“ESB sources coal for Moneypoint on international markets. Russian coal accounted for almost all of the coal consumed in Moneypoint in 2021,” the ESB said.

“Alternative sources of coal to Russia are in place and ESB is expecting a number of major deliveries from those sources in the coming months.”

Typically ESB sources stock several months ahead of time.

Renewable hub

But Moneypoint's story won't end with the demise of fossil fuels. ESB plans to turn it into the State's primary renewable hub by developing a huge offshore wind farm at the site. The multibillion-euro Green Atlantic@Moneypoint programme, unveiled last year, will be centred around two large-scale floating turbine facilities in the Atlantic, potentially the biggest in Europe.

They will be capable of generating electricity to power 1.6 million of the State’s 2.2 million homes, a throwback to when Moneypoint supplied the single largest portion of the State’s energy needs. ESB’s plan will also facilitate a move into green hydrogen production, harnessing the carbon-free gas from the floating farms. The first phase of this renewable hub – a €50 million synchronous compensator to facilitate the increased use of renewables on the grid– will be completed later this year.

With Ireland importing 80 per cent of its energy – oil, coal and gas – this multibillion investment "turns the figure on its head", ESB chief executive Pat O'Doherty said recently, and would allow Ireland become a net exporter of renewable energy.

Energy security has become a key focus for the State with EirGrid warning of possible electricity shortfalls over the next five winters; with data centres threatening to tap too much of the State’s energy; and more recently with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatening a European-wide energy supply shock. It’s perhaps ironic, but altogether positive, that the old, coal-burning dinosaur at Moneypoint may yet play a positive role Ireland’s energy future.