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Q&A: Will the looming energy crisis give us a black Christmas?

The energy supply squeeze has raised fears we won’t be able to keep the lights on this winter, with some worried Ireland may face a choice between power cuts and missing our green targets.

So why are there growing fears that Ireland could have a black Christmas rather than a white one?
Because even government leaders cannot promise that we’ll be able to keep the lights on this winter. On September 29, a report from national grid operator EirGrid warned Ireland must brace itself for electricity shortages over the next five years due to increased demand and falling supply.

Last Monday, around 15,000 households across Clontarf, Fairview and the North Quays got a small taste of what this might mean when their power cut out for several hours. The ESB reported that it was a network fault unrelated to the upcoming challenge, but many citizens are understandably still nervous.

“After a hard year for all, what people want is some certainty,” the Labour councillor for Cabra/Glasnevin Declan Meenagh has said. “Increased alarm around whether we’ll have the energy to light our Christmas trees this year is hugely concerning. It looks like we have a government sleepwalking this country into an energy crisis.”

Why has electricity become so scarce?
It’s a perfect storm, with several different factors. More than half of Ireland’s electricity is powered by gas, which leaves us vulnerable if global demand for it rises. That’s exactly what’s been happening in recent months as most countries’ economies open up again after the Covid lockdowns.

Supply is also being squeezed by several other international developments. Ireland has had lower levels of support than expected from a connector linking us with the UK grid because of Britain’s own shortages.

US exports have been curbed by extreme weather events, Asian gas consumption has rocketed by 50pc over the last decade and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is allegedly sending Europe less gas because he wants EU concessions on his controversial new pipeline to Germany – although he describes this claim as “politically motivated tittle-tattle”.

Does that mean we can blame all our energy problems on outsiders?
Not quite. Ireland is also paying a heavy price for our slowness to develop renewable energy sources. Wind power was supposed to pick up some slack when gas ran short, but these hopes were dashed when we had the least breezy summer here since the 1960s.

Another major headache is the temporary closure of two gas-fired power stations, Energia-owned Huntstown in Dublin and Bord Gáis-owned Whitegate in Cork. Maintenance work on them took much longer than expected due to Covid, although Environment Minister Eamon Ryan has promised they will be back up and running before the really cold weather hits.

On the bright side, at least we’ve coped with all these difficulties so far?
Yes, but at times it’s been a bit close for comfort. EirGrid has predicted we will see more and more ‘system alerts’.

This is a term used when margins are particularly small and there wouldn’t be enough electricity to cope with the loss of a large power plant or some other unforeseen event. Since January 2020, ‘system alerts’ have happened on no fewer than eight occasions.

Even if the lights do stay on, isn’t this energy shortage already hurting us through our electricity bills?
It certainly is. The international wholesale price of gas has increased by a staggering 250pc since January, which obviously creates a knock-on effect for Irish customers. All of Ireland’s 14 energy suppliers have increased prices at least once this year, with some such as Electric Ireland, Energia and Pinergy doing it multiple times.

That means an average household will pay around €500 extra a year on bills that are the highest in the EU when you strip out taxes. As a result, the Government is officially considering following France, Spain and Greece by introducing a price cap.

“I don’t think now is the time for energy companies to be making huge profits at the expense ordinary consumers,” says the Greens’ Dublin MEP Ciarán Cuffe.

What’s the role of data centres in this debate?
It depends which side you’re on. Ireland currently has 70 of these storage facilities, with eight under construction and dozens more seeking planning permission. An average data centre uses the same amount of energy as a small city such as Kilkenny.

Every time you bank, play games or order a takeaway online, you’re adding to that demand. EirGrid has estimated that they could account for one-third of all our electricity consumption by 2030 (it’s currently 11pc).

Opposition parties including Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit are all calling for a temporary ban on new data centres until we know more about their environmental impact.

The Government says this is just scaremongering, with even the Greens’ energy spokesman Brian Leddin retorting: “I think we should leave it to the experts, rather than the politicians.”

What do Government leaders have to say about the possibility of blackouts?
To quote the old Dad’s Army catchphrase, don’t panic. Taoiseach Micheál Martin accepted last month that there is “short-term pressure” on our energy supply, but claimed: “Everything necessary is being done.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has declared himself “reasonably confident” there will be no power cuts this Christmas, while conceding: “Nobody can guarantee it for certain.” As for Eamon Ryan, he admits: “It’ll be a very tight situation for the next two to three [or] four years,” and he can’t be “absolutely certain” that we won’t have to stock up on candles either.

Needless to say, opposition leaders have seized on the uncertain tone of these reassurances – with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald saying they are “falling flat”.

Finally, can Ireland avoid plunging into darkness while also meeting our climate change targets?
This is the really awkward question. Eamon Ryan has said that as “a last resort”, we could make more use of the coal-burning plant at Moneypoint in Co Clare which is due to be wound down. Returning to such dirty fuels, however, would severely damage Ireland’s promise to have 70pc of electricity generated from renewable sources by 2030.

To be fair, we are not alone. With the crucial Glasgow Cop26 climate change conference now just over a week away, a United Nations report has found that world governments’ current plans are “dangerously out of sync” with the emissions cuts we need.

“We’re left in a situation where we must hope for the best,” the UCC energy researcher Paul Deane warned recently. “And hope is a terrible strategy.”

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