In many ways, how we generate and use energy is one of the main reasons we are facing many serious challenges such as climate change and fossil fuel energy insecurity. These challenges are multifaceted and will require us to come together to collectively address them.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges that humanity faces this century. Our climate affects practically every aspect of our daily lives. We are all completely dependent on a stable climate. Burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas and turf contributes to climate change. In fact, the burning of fossil fuels accounts for about two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions (land use change and agriculture account for most of the rest). Unfortunately, fossil fuels make up the vast majority of the fuels we use for energy in Galway. For example, we use oil-based fuel to run practically all of our vehicles, to heat most of our homes and to produce most of our electricity.
Not only are fossil fuels causing climate change but also the vast majority of them have to be imported from abroad, often from volatile regions of the world. Approximately €6.7 billion is spent on importing fossil fuels into Ireland every single year. This is a huge loss of money from the local and national economy.
Currently, Galway has little energy security – we are extremely dependent on imported fossil fuels for our energy needs. In 2013, Ireland was over 89% dependent on imported fossil fuels for our energy needs. This high dependency means that we are particularly vulnerable to shortages in supply and to changes in price in oil, gas and coal. This vulnerability was last made clear to us in Ireland during the global oil crisis of the 1970s.
Oil is finite. There is only so much of it in the ground. The geological certainty that global oil production will peak and eventually decline will make oil an ever dwindling and ever more expensive energy source. The remaining oil reserves are contained in a few countries and are increasingly more difficult to extract and convert into useful fuels.
A lot of energy is unnecessarily wasted in our homes, businesses, the public sector, power production, transport and manufacturing. There are many poorly insulated and draughty homes, inefficient heating systems and wasteful manufacturing equipment. The electricity grid infrastructure is not as efficient as it could be, as it has to ensure enough power for variable demand. Such inefficiency means that a great deal of money is needlessly leaving the local economy on imported fuels, while increasing costs for businesses and ordinary people.
Many of us have lifestyles that require large amounts of energy. A lot of us are very dependent on our cars and many commute long distances. We could all be better at turning off lights and electrical equipment when not in use.
Many of us burn polluting solid fuel at home in our fireplaces, ranges and stoves. Fossil fuels such as coal are dirty and lead to air pollution and respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer. Burning coal and turf contributes to climate change.
On the flipside of the coin, there are also many households that cannot afford heat, and suffer from fuel poverty. People in fuel poverty frequently live in cold, damp and mouldy houses. This has important direct and indirect effects on health and contributes to health inequalities in many areas including: increased risk of death in cold weather; increased risk of respiratory illness; increased blood pressure and cardiovascular events; worsening arthritis; impaired mental health; adverse effects on children’s wellbeing.
While we have made some recent progress towards a low carbon energy system we are not moving fast enough. The post-Celtic Tiger recession has hampered much needed investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Loans are still too difficult to access for families and organisations that want to invest in going green.
This section outlines some suggestions so that we can transition to a low carbon and sustainable Galway in the energy sector.