A few years ago I bought an old oil lamp. It has a brass Corinthian column, a porcelain well and a glass globe. There was one like this in our house when I was young, and since blackouts were quite common, it was used often. Nostalgia aside, I’m even happier with my purchase now as it could come in handy this winter if we run out of power. How did it come to this?
Fortunately, there are random factors beyond our control and convenient enemies to blame. Unfortunately, there are some inconvenient truths as well.
Convenient truths are true. Internationally, Asia had a cold winter last year and bought huge stocks of gas globally. Then Vladimir Putin spotted an opportunity and cut gas supplies from Russia to Europe in the current strain on the Nordstream 2 pipeline.
Then the wind didn’t blow much. European countries needed summer to restock their gas supplies. Instead, they burned it down to generate summer electricity. It’s like a forage crisis after a wet summer, with farmers coming into the winter with half-empty hay.
Nationally, our ostrich approach to energy has finally caught up with us. I am all for renewables and have supported wind energy several times in this column. Unfortunately, until battery technology is developed, wind power cannot be stored.
This windless summer meant that, with two gas stations offline in Huntstown and Whitegate, we were depending on poor old Moneypoint to burn coal, resulting in increased carbon emissions. Colm McCarthy curtly observed that South Dublin’s tax-benefiting Teslas are now coal-fired cars. Leave your privileged green aura at the door, boys.
So blackouts are looming, but I’ve come to think that it’s not a bad thing. It will focus minds on our energy problem.
So let’s get back to those inconvenient truths – the ones that don’t involve Russians or Asians.
While our data center policy is crazy and has rightly garnered attention, a more fundamental problem is nimbyism, both in the community and in government.
The Nimbyism community is on view. Electricity is lousy. You can’t see the volts, but pipelines, power plants, transformers, and pylons don’t look pretty. I think wind turbines have a kind of elegance and solar farms are almost harmless, but others are losing their minds on it.
Everyone wants electricity. Nobody wants to look at the infrastructure.
So there is a long list of projects facing serious protests, like the North-South Interconnection of Tyrone and the Celtic Sea Interconnection from France to Cork. This is particularly important because it would ensure the energy independence of the United Kingdom.
While opponents of the north-south line want it to be buried, the people of Cork even oppose a proposal to bury the French interconnect cables.
These projects will all be delayed. Presumably they will move on eventually, but too late and more expensive than necessary.
A more serious problem is the protest within the government, the Green Party.
Greens across Europe have always been divided between Realos and Fundis: realistic pragmatists and fantasy fundamentalists. In Ireland it is no different. Eamon Ryan has experience in responsible government, but is a prisoner of the anarchist wing of his party.
They cannot accept that although renewables are a big part of the future, there is no future without natural gas, the lowest carbon emitter of fossil fuels. In the windless summer of 2018, gas produced 90% of our electricity.
But the Greens are opposed to major gas infrastructures.
There is the liquid natural gas (LNG) facility in Shannon. Liquefied gas reduces its volume and makes it viable for transport on ships and trucks. Supertankers are currently floating in the world’s seas and oceans and transporting LNG. The gas is sold on what is called the spot market, and the ship is directed to the country that buys its cargo.
The proposal in Shannon is for a docking station allowing supertankers to unload gas directly into the system.
This would reduce our dependence on the pipeline through Great Britain. As the British sink into post-Brexit chaos, this kind of energy independence is the top priority for adults.
But even Ryan himself opposes the installation of LNG.
We also need a facility to store gas and we need to allow companies to explore more gas off the west coast. Instead, Ryan has announced he wants to ban all further exploration – even though he knows supplies to the Corrib gas field are running out.
Do you see the problem? The Minister of Energy is very selective – too selective – about our source of energy.
If we can’t depend on the Russians, avoid supertankers, and get our noses on carbon-free nuclear power, the least we should be doing is certainly exploring our own gas fields.
But Greens live in the ever-blustery highlands of renewables, while anyone working in energy faces the grim reality of intermittency.
In Ireland we sometimes have stupid accusations against politicians on the left or on the right. The real difference is between politicians who are willing to be honest and those who sell a fantasy. The first are almost extinct.
The result of this refusal to accept that we need gas is that even if the lights stay on, our electricity bills will go up.
Fortunately, I’m old enough to remember not only oil lamps, but hot water bottles, and a life before electric showers. The advantage of washing in the sink in the soft glow of the lamp is that I will never look so good.