Column in the Irish Times

Sustainable energy is integral to enabling progress in society, the economy, and sustainable development. It was called the “golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability” by Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General when access to sustainable, modern energy for all by 2030 was adopted as a Sustainable Development Goal in 2015.

We are now in the middle of perhaps the most rapid and urgent energy transition in history. Examples from the past show that policy decisions made at such critical inflection points, whether in response to an energy supply shock or climate change, can create unforeseen opportunities. But energy transitions are also disruptive, and unless managed with joined-up, systems thinking, they can also cause negative unintended consequences.

The last great energy transition, triggered by the 1970s oil crisis, transformed Ireland’s energy system profoundly. Energy supply was vulnerable, with up to 70% of electricity generation reliant on imported oil. Energy supply shocks and skyrocketing prices triggered by geopolitical events prompted a rush of innovation and diversification to improve the security of energy supply: the Kinsale gas field was discovered and natural gas was piped around the country, the Moneypoint coal power plant was commissioned, and there was a new interest in energy conservation and efficiency. By the late 1980s, a rapid transformation in electricity generation had taken place and less than 10% of electricity was from oil.

Against a backdrop of increasing modernity, wealth and comfort, homes had also become reliant on oil. New central heating systems warmed the whole house and replaced the traditional open fire, which heated a single room. To protect oil-dependent households from price and supply shocks, the government gave grants to homes to build a fireplace and chimney if they didn’t have them, and to install back boilers, among other measures. Then, solid fuel – coal, turf, and wood – could be used to heat radiators instead of oil.

My late grandfather played a small role in this part of the energy transition: the enormous demand for back boilers allowed him to reskill and move from being a factory fitter to being a self-employed plumber, raising his income and supporting a young family.

In the same vein, I often reflect on a conversation with the owner of my local petrol station, a family business, on the impact the electrification of transport will have on his business. “We will adapt”, he said. “My father was a farrier”.

Looking at ongoing energy system upheavals, we should learn this lesson, to not underestimate the opportunities that are at stake for improving livelihoods.

However, as humans, we are averse to losses, more than we are attracted to gains. It is far easier to measure and visualise the disappearance of one industry, such as peat harvesting and selling petrol, than it is to imagine the gains from a new disruptive energy technology, such as installing heat pumps, operating a wind farm or (in the case of my grandfather 50 years ago) installing back boilers. Incumbent industries also by their nature have a more powerful voice than those in their infancy.

A second lesson from the last great energy transition is to carefully plan for the threat of unintended consequences. The electricity system diversified away from oil, but locked into other fossil fuel infrastructure, which now must be decommissioned urgently to meet climate targets. And we are still dangerously dependent on oil, which fuels 96% and 40% of transport and home energy needs respectively.

The State encouraged the installation of back boilers with good intentions - to keep homes warm and support new livelihoods, like my grandfather’s. But this policy played a very significant role in promoting a deadly health hazard which is still not resolved: Air pollution from these fires caused smog and increased respiratory and cardiovascular illness in cities and towns, and burning solid fuel for heat still plays a major role in the 1300 premature deaths from air pollution.

The higher price of smokeless fuels was a barrier to the eventual ban of the sale of bituminous coal in Dublin in 1990, but it was in fact households in the poorest neighbourhoods who suffered the worst of the smog and stood to gain: The ban saved 350 lives in Dublin each year and the government gave financial support through a new fuel allowance to low-income homes.

Energy policy must address the multiple challenges of climate change, air pollution, energy security and energy poverty in a shifting and complex economic and political landscape. Policies cannot treat individual issues in isolation. For example, stalling the ban on the sale of commercially cut turf will not address energy poverty, but at the same time, any measure to ban fuels used by low-income households must ensure that sustainable alternatives are accessible and affordable.

Similarly, a policymaker may consider that it may not be the right time to push policies to address climate change, given the current energy crisis stemming from the war in Ukraine. But in fact, now is exactly the time, because these two crises have the same underpinning causes: reliance on too much energy which is mainly from fossil fuels.