The first of these should be of particular interest to archiheads How a lot of hot air creates a legacy of cold houses
The growth in new housing is all very well, but builders are not yet bound by EU directives on energy efficiency, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor
Over the past decade, successive Government Ministers have trumpeted the output of new housing in Ireland as prodigious, exceeding 80,000 units in 2005 alone.
Every year has racked up a new record and, within a relatively short time, new homes are set to outnumber old in the overall housing stock.
The many tower cranes on the skyline in Dublin and other urban centres are the most visible symbols of the construction boom that is currently driving the Irish economy. New apartment buildings, office blocks, shopping centres and other developments are built at breakneck speed and fill up quickly.
What's not so evident is that buildings of all categories account for at least 40 per cent of our energy consumption, amounting to €3.5 billion a year. But with the prices of gas, heating oil and electricity all on a steeply upward curve - and set to rise by at least 20 per cent this autumn - everyone is feeling the pinch.
We are already spending more than most of our EU counterparts on energy, despite relatively mild Irish winters.
Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) estimates the average household's annual energy bill for electricity and space heating at around €1,700, with associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 8.5 tonnes a year.
The main reason is that Irish homes are not very energy-efficient. Older houses have always been harder to heat, but even new houses and apartments are major consumers of energy - largely because the Government dithered for so long over changing the building regulations to impose higher insulation standards.
A 1998 Department of the Environment memo acknowledged that the regulations needed to be revised, but warned: "We don't want to signal this to the outside world just yet because the next leap in building standard insulation will probably involve making it difficult for 'hollow block' construction, used widely in Dublin, to survive."
The new regulations were not introduced until 2002, with an exemption for all planning applications lodged before the end of that year, which meant that nearly 300,000 new homes were built under the old standards; the Government put the narrow interest of one section of the concrete industry ahead of the public interest.
As a direct result, we are left with a "legacy of cold houses for coming generations", as one Austrian expert put it. Dr Christian Rakos director of the Austrian Wood Pellets Association, who spent a year working with SEI, said all the new homes built here in recent years could have been much better insulated at very little cost.
But the EU is catching up with us. Under its 2002 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, all buildings put on the market for sale or rent must have a Building Energy Rating (BER) - in effect, an "energy label" - which will show their energy consumption for space and water heating, ventilation and lighting, and associated CO2 emissions.
This was to come into effect for new houses from January 1st, 2007, but it won't. Under "transitional arrangements" made by Minister for the Environment Dick Roche, construction works for which planning permission was sought on or before June 30th last are exempt, provided they are substantially completed by the end of June 2008.
According to Kevin O'Rourke, head of the built environment section at SEI, the BER will probably be expressed in kilowatt hours per square metre per year.
The rating will also be on "some sort of scale", though whether this will be as clear as the "A, B, C, D" rating for domestic appliances has yet to be decided, because houses and other buildings are obviously more complex.
There are also two approved methods for measuring energy performance, which could produce two significantly different ratings for the same house. This is seen by Gerry McCaughey, chief executive of timber-frame housebuilders Kingspan Century, as another gratuitous concession to the concrete industry.
The industry is alarmed by the huge growth in timber-frame construction, which grew from less than 1 per cent of new homes in 1990 to 27 per cent last year. TV commercials claim that concrete homes are "better built homes" - even though credible evidence suggests that the energy performance of their rivals is higher.
SEI's "House of Tomorrow" programme, aided by a subvention of €8,000 per unit, is designed to accelerate change in how we build new housing. Using better insulation, controlled ventilation, double-glazing and more efficient heating systems, O'Rourke says savings of at least 40 per cent on household energy bills have been easily achieved.
But the general standard is still relatively low because nothing has yet been done to strengthen Part L of the Building Regulations (dealing with energy efficiency) since the current version was adopted in 2002. It is not due to be revised until 2008; an option to do this in the context of implementing the EU directive was simply not taken up.
A bigger problem area in terms of energy waste and CO2 emissions is the services sector, particularly air-conditioned office buildings. These consume twice as much energy as naturally ventilated alternatives, such as the pioneering Fingal County Hall. That's why SEI has funded more than 70 building projects, mainly in the public sector, to show how a good environment can be created without air-conditioning.
Last year, a report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors concluded that "green buildings" designed to use resources more efficiently are good for business because they can command higher rents, enjoy lower tenant turnover, improve business efficiency and productivity as well as costing less to operate and maintain.
The message is getting through. Last November, the Inchydoney Lodge and Spa in west Cork switched over from gas to an innovative solar and wood pellet heating system. This is expected to cut its energy bill by half and pay for itself within five years; it also means that the resort will no longer be "held to ransom" by rising fossil fuel prices.
Kelly's Resort Hotel in Rosslare, Co Wexford, has also made the switch, retaining two of its three oil burners merely as back-up to a new heating system using wood pellets. Installed with the aid of an SEI grant, this will cut its €100,000-plus heating bill by up to 60 per cent as well as substantially reducing the hotel's CO2 emissions.
The highly carbon-intensive cement industry is the second largest industrial source of these emissions, belching out a tonne of CO2 for every tonne of cement it produces. This has been reduced by up to 300,000 tonnes per annum - or 7 per cent - through the manufacture by Ecocem of "green cement" from blast-furnace slag.
But when the Office of Public Works (OPW) recently sought to specify alternative cement for building projects, the Cement Manufacturers Association - with tacit support from the Department of the Environment's construction division - accused the OPW of rushing to judgment and putting a traditional industry in jeopardy.
At a meeting with Minister of State Tom Parlon, the association - which includes CRH plc, the Seán Quinn Group and Lagan Cement - said it was looking into producing a more environment-friendly blended cement. The response was that, if such cement could be independently certified, the OPW would have no problem specifying its use.
© The Irish TimesPower struggle
We need to diversify electricity sources to ensure a secure supply and protect the economy, writes Dick Ahlstrom, Science Editor.
Ireland's capacity for wealth creation is critically dependent on a reliable supply of electricity. But with imported fossil fuels now accounting for more than 70 per cent of its production, what would happen to our Celtic Tiger economy if someone literally "pulled the plug"?
Oil and gas are still readily available on international markets, albeit at higher and higher prices that are all passed along to the consumer. But Ibec's energy chief David Manning warns that "if things went pear-shaped, we would be economically undermined".
Electricity prices here have tripled since 2002, and a further 20 per cent price hike is expected later this year. Eurostat pegged Irish industrial electricity prices as second highest in the EU after Cyprus - double the French charges and 25 per cent above the British figure - while our domestic electricity prices were the fifth highest in the EU.
Soaring price is one thing, but a disruption in supply would be very serious given our overwhelming dependence on imported fossil fuels. Thus, creating diversity of supply as a way to escape our oil addiction and improve fuel security is now a key consideration for policy-makers. Minimising the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation is also necessary to help reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, especially as the coal-fired Moneypoint power station is being allowed to continue to emit more than five million tonnes of carbon dioxide (C02) a year.
The EU target of reaching 13.2 per cent of electricity generation from renewables by 2010 will now be reached, according to the latest projections. Indeed, it has recently been raised to 15 per cent by Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey.
Wind power will account for most of this, with smaller contributions from Ardnacrusha and other hydroelectric stations, as well as biomass, which might include the use of short-rotation forestry as fuel for peat-fired power stations in the midlands.
Assuming that the upward curve in oil prices continues, there will be other options such as tidal and wave energy.
A new energy policy document published last week by the Irish Academy of Engineering (IAE) takes the provocative view that we should stop using conventional coal or peat by 2025 and abandon oil and gas use by 2050.
By then, it argues, our electricity mix should be based on nuclear power, renewables and "clean coal" technology.
The chief executive of EirGrid, Dermot Byrne, agrees that diversity of fuel is an important element in security of supply. Established on July 1st, EirGrid is Ireland's transmission system operator, handling the distribution of electricity provided by the ESB and private electricity companies. But Byrne says the nuclear option is unacceptable to the Government and the wider public.
"The reality is, nuclear is not on the agenda in Ireland at the moment," he says. "At some stage, maybe it will be and there are signs of a debate on the issue," he adds, but it is not a runner for now.
Analysts Sue Scott and John FitzGerald at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) have dismissed nuclear as too expensive for Ireland.
Not only is there a high build cost - up to €3 billion per plant - but there is the hidden cost of dealing with nuclear waste for thousands of years afterwards.
The ESRI says wind power is "now competitive" because of rising oil and gas prices, but farmed energy such as biofuels and wave power are still not economically viable. As a result, wind turbines alone should help us surpass the 2010 renewables target, according to Prof John Ringwood, dean of engineering at NUI Maynooth. We are already approaching 600 megawatts (mw) of installed wind power, and there are contracts agreed for a further 633mw, in the context of an electricity demand that will reach 8,031mw by 2012, according to EirGrid projections.
But wind turbines provide intermittent electricity supplies and, in the long- term, will be self-limiting, according to the IAE report. For 300 days a year, they can supply hundreds of megawatts of power, but when the wind stops, so do the turbines.
The resultant gap must be filled by switching on oil or gas stations to cover peak demand. This is the most expensive electricity to supply and hides the "real cost" of having wind power much beyond 10 to 15 per cent of total supply, the IAE argues.
Interconnectors with Britain remain an option, but both the IAE and the ESRI raise questions about the high cost of building them. The IAE estimates these links will cost about €1 billion and argues that the existing link with Northern Ireland's electricity grid, which can supply up to 1,200mw, is "generally adequate" for our projected demand. "Suggestions that it could be justified by exporting wind power from Ireland to Britain have little economic justification."
Nor is there any guarantee relating to price or continuity of supply; if Britain ran short, it wouldn't dilute its own supply by selling electricity to us or to anyone beyond its borders.
Nonetheless, EirGrid, Ibec and Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) all support the interconnector approach as a way to introduce competition, diversify supply and smooth over demand peaks.
This skirts over the fact that when the wind doesn't blow, any power we buy from Britain is likely to be nuclear, given plans announced last week to build at least six new nuclear reactors. But there appear to be few alternatives for future security of supply unless some new and unexpected source of energy arises.
Electricity demand is rising by up to 4 per cent per annum and last year reached a peak of 4,828mw. Current generating capacity stands at about 6,700mw. But many power stations are old and subject to breakdown and more frequent maintenance, which together drain away almost 20 per cent of total capacity.
"The average availability is between 82 and 83 per cent," says EirGrid's Dermot Byrne. By international standards, "it would be relatively low and is probably affected by a small number of poor performing plants". This pushes down electricity capacity much closer to the peak demand, which rises by about 200mw every year.
Two new power stations, Tynagh in Co Galway and Sealrock at Aughinish, Co Limerick, have joined the grid so far this year. A third new generator at Huntstown, near Finglas in north Dublin, run by private supplier Viridian, will follow later this year. Together they will add almost 700mw of capacity to the grid and offset the loss of the Tarbert generating station in Co Kerry, which is to close by 2010.
The new Viridian plant and electricity coming from the offshore wind farm on the Arklow Bank run by Airtricity and GE Energy are typical of the moves by private companies to supply electricity as a result of our liberalised market, according to SEI chief executive David Taylor.
"As we move towards a fully liberalised all-Ireland market, more companies will see opportunities to invest."
© The Irish Times