Bord na Móna’s Head of Renewable Energy, John Reilly has in his 15 years working with the company watched it shift from being entirely fossil fuel-based to being a leader in Ireland’s renewable energy sector.
And he explained to the Dublin Gazette that history may well look upon the organisation’s move towards a more circular model as its lifeline.
“The organisation was faced with the stark reality that if we didn’t adapt from fossil fuels, the company would die, it was that simple. In the electricity sector, the internalisation of the cost of carbon was commenced in 2005 through the European Emissions Trading Scheme. The cap this introduced meant that for every tonne of C02 we produced from our power stations, we had to buy carbon credits or allowances.
“That was a form of energy taxation that made it very clear to those of us within the fossil fuel industry that it wouldn’t be sustainable as a means of energy going into the future, for financial reasons as well as climate ones. Therefore, it was easy to make the decision to transition. Some people may describe it as forward-thinking but I would argue that it was good business acumen for our survival”, he commented.
Prompted by emerging climate research, Bord na Móna began to investigate alternative energy sources over a decade ago, after almost 70 years of supplying energy and employment in the Irish midlands through fossil fuels.
Mr. Reilly said: “Over the last two decades, the world really began to understand how the production of greenhouse gases, principally from how we generate and consume energy, was having a detrimental effect on the world’s climate. Within the sector, we were very aware that we needed to change the way we did things. Fundamentally, that meant moving away from fossil fuels as a source of energy, which created an enormous obstacle for us because our business was absolutely embedded in fossil fuels.
“We first developed a commercial wind farm in Bellacorick, County Mayo, in 1992, despite it not being a particularly commercial venture at the time because we understood that onshore wind would likely become a valuable energy source. These lands have been involved in energy production for the last 80 years and now, due to the rise in renewable energy, they can continue to assist with Ireland’s energy consumption in a way that is no longer detrimental to the planet. Our land bank is infinitely suitable for the development of large-scale renewable energy projects, such as large onshore wind projects or even utility-scale solar projects.”
Although Bord na Móna’s evolution into renewable energy has created new initiatives and opportunities for the organisation, it has not been without its challenges. Along with the changeover came a drop in direct employment rates that may never recover.
Mr Reilly stated: “The greatest benefit of our work in fossil fuels was that we were employing in excess of 2000 people, the vast majority of whom were working directly with fossil fuel activity. The greatest negative we identified was that, as we grew and invested in renewable businesses, we would certainly create new greener jobs but we would never be able to replace all of the jobs that had been lost. Unfortunately, that is indicative of a transition that the world will have to make and there will be winners and losers. During the process of our changeover, we had to let 1000 employees go, from the very top to the newest recruits, which was extremely painful.
“However, the good news is that we are going to create over 1400 direct and indirect jobs, as a result of our two main business pillars, renewable energy and waste management and recycling.
In our renewable energy section, we have seen the number of our employees double from 100 to 200 employees in the past four years. We hope to continue with this rise, as we intend to establish two new renewable energy projects every year for the next ten years. Indirectly, we will also be creating roughly 300 jobs in construction and another 300 positions through our invest and enable programme, where we are facilitating start-up companies and smaller businesses.”
Bord na Móna officially ceased peat extraction on their land in January of this year and another bone of contention that has emerged from this has been the loss of growing peat for Ireland’s horticulture sector.
In relation to this, Mr Reilly said: “Irish milled peat is one of the best growing media in the world, bar none. However, unfortunately the provision of that was a part of the legacy of the business that is no longer viable, commercial or sustainable for us to continue with. In many ways, the growing media was a by-product of the larger harvesting, which has had to end as we’ve changed our energy sourcing. We’re trying to find environmentally-friendly alternative growing materials, which is a challenge and the experts will probably tell you that it will sadly not be as good as milled peat.”
Mr Reilly identified renewably-sourced electricity as a key component in Ireland meeting its decarbonisation aims and as a good starting point for climate-conscious households.
“We announced a €1.6 billion investment programme in climate action to help Ireland in meeting its 2030 carbon targets, the majority of which will go towards onshore wind, which is our main focus. What we’re trying to do is use electricity as a vector that we can push into other sectors of the economy that are not as easy to decarbonise.
“The biggest challenge that any household in Ireland faces is how they can make a contribution to reducing their carbon footprint. Ireland’s electricity demand is anticipated to increase by about 25 per cent over the next decade. For example, we expect to see a significant growth in electric vehicles over the next number of years, which means that more electricity will be needed to power them, in addition to more electricity being used to heat our homes.
“I’d advise householders to educate themselves on this area, one thing we know is that we can make Ireland’s power system greener relatively easily and relatively cheaply and there is no doubt that electricity is a clear option. The cost of energy and some of the services that we rely on day-to-day is going to increase as we shift to a low-carbon economy and those who plan their way will come out as winners, I’ve no doubt about that.”
Bord na Móna’s emphasis on circularity is evident in its investment in waste, specifically on resource, recovery, recycling and converting waste into energy. On behalf of the organisation, Mr. Reilly expressed the hope that they might one day introduce this circularity into the Irish landscape: “Rehabilitation is a big focus for us, rather than mining the sites we have worked on for decades, we’ve set up a new business that is going to look at how we can recreate the environment to allow lands to become carbon sinks rather once again. It won’t be easy, the science behind the accelerated rehabilitation of formerly cutaway peatlands is still in its infancy but we’re very hopeful. We aim to create lovely biodiverse habitats, possible parks and amenity spaces and, most crucially, to see these sites sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, in reverse of how we were previously using them.”