The publication of a White Paper, setting out the Irish government’s latest vision for energy policy, is expected later this year. Ahead of this publication, Minister for Energy Alex White TD held a public consultation session in Dublin Castle in June which provided an early insight into what this policy is likely to contain. Community engagement appears, at this early stage, to be the big winner.

The Context: Towards an Energy White Paper

In May 2014, the then Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte TD published a Green Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland. The aim of that paper was to stimulate a discussion between citizens, policymakers, academics, energy companies and energy stakeholders on a vision for Irish energy policy. Informed by this discussion, the resulting policy would then be reflected in a White Paper. The Green Paper invited feedback from interested parties on six policy priority areas and sought suggestions as to any additional issues which should be considered in the White Paper.

What Priorities were Identified in the Green Paper?

The six policy priority areas identified back in May 2014, to assist in framing the energy policy discussion, were:

  1. empowering energy citizens;
  2. markets and regulation;
  3. planning and implementing essential energy infrastructure;
  4. ensuring a balanced and secure energy mix;
  5. putting the energy system on a sustainable pathway; and
  6. driving economic opportunity.

An Appetiser

On 3rd June 2015, Minister for Energy Alex White TD held a “citizen and public stakeholder information session” in Dublin Castle, which seemed to be intended to sate the public appetite for energy policy insight, while the White Paper is awaited.

In front of an audience of almost 300 energy stakeholders and interested parties, the Minister stated that: 

  • the ultimate goal is the decarbonisation of Ireland’s energy production and use, and a transition to a low-carbon sector by 2050; 
  • new sources of renewable energy would be developed during Ireland’s transition including solar photovoltaic, off-shore wind and carbon capture and storage. In particular, the Minister noted the development of an Off-Shore Renewable Energy Development Plan and a Bioenergy Action Plan that would focus on heat and transport.  A key theme was an intention to depart from the current reliance on on-shore wind farms as Ireland’s primary source of renewable energy, in favour of a more diverse range of energy options; 
  • it is important to balance the choice between acting now and waiting for new technologies to be invented; 
  • no longer would energy policy be determined on a unilateral, top-down basis. Instead, the onus will be on government and industry to demonstrate the benefits of new projects and to show communities that all the potential alternatives have been explored. Noting what he described as an “insensitive approach to community concerns about new energy infrastructure” in the past, the Minister emphasised the need for evidence-informed analysis;
  • there will be a robust focus on the cost to consumers of the transition to a fully decarbonised energy system; and 
  • the White Paper will outline initiatives that will provide investor certainty and contribute to the achievement of the renewable electricity targets – although no detail was provided as to how this would be achieved.

Engaging with Alternatives

Of the policy priority areas identified in the Green Paper, it is noteworthy that the Minister has focused explicitly on the tension between the sustainability agenda and the empowerment of energy citizens and has indicated that this tension is to be resolved by seeking alternatives to on-shore wind.

On-shore wind generation has, to date, been substantially the sole vehicle by which the Irish government has pursued its stated target of generating 40% of Ireland’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.  The announcement to seek alternative technologies is a significant one, and must be viewed as a political response to an increasingly visible body of Irish public sentiment that opposes the proliferation of on-shore wind farms.  The tenor of this sentiment was reflected in the information session itself, where the Q&A session was driven by a voluble group of anti-onshore wind farm objectors.

Energy policy is often viewed, convincingly, as a “trilemma” involving a trade-off between energy security, affordability and sustainability.  

It is submitted that no amount of public protest will change the fact that Irish energy policy must continue to operate within this trilemma.  Community engagement can be expected to influence how the trilemma is resolved – both in terms of the technological “energy mix” that is ultimately pursued, and the ease with which suitable projects can be implemented in practice – but if the pursuit of energy sustainability is made more difficult, the trilemma dictates that we should expect negative consequences in terms of energy affordability and/or energy security. 

Energy affordability is constantly monitored by a range of interested parties, who are also capable of capturing the attention of policymakers.  Observers will therefore be eagerly awaiting Ireland’s Energy White Paper – due in Autumn 2015 – for guidance on how Ireland sees itself negotiating the energy trilemma, and managing the various community interests, in the years following 2020.