Soaring gas prices underline folly of closing Peat Power stations

You know what it would be a good time for, 2022? A hot summer.

Because if we’ve all to turn on the heating between now and September, it won’t be pretty:

BORD Gáis has become the first energy provider to announce a price rise this year, with massive rises coming next month.

The company is increasing the average electricity bill by 27pc and the average gas bill by 39pc from April 15.

The increases will add around €340 a year to the average household’s annual gas bill, and €330 to the average annual electricity bill.

But this comes on the back of price hikes that have added around €540 to people’s gas and electricity bills since the autumn of 2020.

To be fair to Bord Gáis, there’s not a lot they can do here. We’re seeing the impact of shortages of gas and oil partly as a result of increased global demand, and partly as a result of the economic sanctions on Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Not that this will be of any comfort to a person opening their bills, sometime over the next two months.

Those two factors will get all the media attention, of course – the war and global inflation – but there will be much less attention paid to the longer-term cause of these problems, which is Ireland’s policy-driven energy crunch.

Readers will remember, from last Autumn, long before there was any talk of war in Russia, that there was instead talk of “rolling brownouts” throughout Ireland during the winter because of a threat of overloaded demand on the electricity grid. We had to sit through endless Dáil speeches blaming data centres for using too much power, and so on. There was, unsurprisingly, little attention paid to the Government’s policy in recent years of closing Ireland’s peat-burning power stations.

And of course, there will be little attention paid to it today. Because paying attention to that fact might undermine confidence in the green energy agenda, which every journalist and commentator and politician agrees to be of vital and supreme importance. Nobody wants to sound like one of those people.

The basic facts, though, are these: The price of electricity is going up because the price of natural gas is going up, because natural gas is what we use in many of our power plants. One way to mitigate the cost of a rise in the price of gas would be to have other, cheaper, sources for generating electricity: For example, peat burning power stations, which, at their peak, were capable of supplying about 10% of our national electricity needs.

Peat is, of course, much cheaper than gas. We have, and have used for years, a reasonably ready supply of it here in Ireland. Not only that, but we have the ability to import it, from elsewhere, at a much reduced cost compared to natural gas. The problem is and was that environmental campaigners did not like peat because of it’s impact on global CO2 emissions.

The problem, alas, is that the impact of burning peat in Irish power stations was never a major factor in global climate change. Nor would it be, if we were burning it today. And the idea that Ireland needs to, or can, lead the world’s way on emissions reductions at this particular moment in time seems a little naïve, given events to the east:

There is nothing particularly wrong about a desire to “go green”, or to save Irish bogs, or protect Irish biodiversity – it’s an ideal we should all share. The problem was that the peat burning stations were not, say, cycled down and kept in reserve for emergencies – that would have reduced emissions too. It was that they were instead closed altogether, meaning that in a natural gas price shock, Irish consumers now have no other source of electricity. Those who made the policy clearly did not think a day might come when having diverse energy sources would be important.

It’s probably too late now to do anything about it: Bringing those stations back online would take time, and by then, prices may have fallen back. But from where I’m sitting, here, looking at massive price rises, politicians sure seem to have made a stupid – and worse, foreseeably stupid – decision.

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