ESB switch from coal to oil at Moneypoint power plant could drive up emissions, environmental group warns

Friends of the Earth says Ireland risks getting locked into ‘dirty, expensive future’ due to continued dependence on fossil fuels

A move to switch the country’s largest power generation plant, at Moneypoint in Co Clare, from burning coal to oil after 2025 has been strongly criticised by environmental organisation Friends of the Earth. The move risks locking Ireland into expensive fossil fuel infrastructure, it warned.

The initial application was lodged by the ESB on May 24th but a public consultation process has yet to be completed, according to An Bord Pleanála.

In its latest projections for carbon emissions last week, the Environmental Protection Agency highlighted dependency on coal use due to unavailability of sufficient gas-fired power generation, saying recent geopolitical events and slow implementation of renewable electricity targets “has undone some of the good work of recent years” in the energy sector.

“This could negatively impact achievement of national targets,” it warned.


Friends of the Earth Ireland chief executive, Oisín Coghlan, said the switch was likely to drive up Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions when the country should be phasing out fossil fuels. “The key issue here is whether the power plant can be ramped up and down quickly, like gas plants, to balance the grid and support renewables. This reveals yet again how fossil fuel-dependent we are as a country.”

Oil-fired generation was almost eliminated after 2011 but its use has increased alarmingly since 2021, he added, when its share increased to 7.5 per cent of Ireland’s electricity.

If Moneypoint is converted, that will add another 14 per cent to oil’s share in power generation, Mr Coghlan said. “Oil is a fossil fuel and burning more of it will drive up Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions when we are supposed to be on track to phasing them out. It is only marginally more efficient than coal as a fuel source for electricity generation – about 37 per cent over 34 per cent.”

Burning heavy fuel oil to generate electricity would also release dangerous compounds and particulate matter into the air, he predicted. “We know that Ireland requires more reserve generation capacity to match peak demand. But, it is vital we do not lock ourselves into a dirty, expensive future by building new fossil fuel infrastructure that, once built, provides its own logic for increased use.”

He called on the Government to ensure by regulation a refitted Moneypoint is used as infrequently as possible and that “no part of the grid management and electricity market regulation encourages increased energy use to recover the cost of this investment”.

The ESB application is for the “transition and conversion of the existing 900-megawatt electricity generating station from coal to heavy fuel oil and associated ancillary development”. The interim measure is provided for in the Government’s 2023 climate plan, though the ESB has not specified for how long it would continue to burn oil at the power plant.

In a statement, the ESB acknowledged it previously confirmed its intention to cease burning coal at Moneypoint from the end of 2025 but it said the switch to oil post-2025 was driven by energy security concerns.

It added: “As part of the current security of electricity supply initiative, ESB has been in discussions with EirGrid about extending the life of existing assets and to that end, the provision of generation capacity from Moneypoint beyond 2025 using oil as a fuel. Oil is less carbon-intensive than coal and the Moneypoint units are capable of operating solely on oil.”

It confirmed it recently submitted “a pre-screening application to An Bord Pleanála on this matter”.

Separately, the ESB has announced a €5 billion plan to transform electricity production at Moneypoint to offshore wind energy production as part of a large decarbonisation of its power network including creating a green hydrogen hub at the site located in the Shannon estuary.

Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable electricity in an electrolyser to split water and generate the carbon-free gas.

The ESB recently announced a 50/50 partnership with renewable energy giant Ørsted on Irish projects focused on offshore wind, which also encompasses agreement to explore opportunities from renewable hydrogen produced from the offshore wind projects in the longer term. It is also investigating the possible use of green hydrogen in its power generation plants.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times