1st April 2022

It’s time to pull the plug on Ireland’s renewables red tape regime

The conflict in Ukraine, which has caused fuel prices to soar up past €2 per litre, coupled with the latest announcement of an up-to-25% price hike in electricity and gas from May, has pushed the Government to make the necessary interventions on fuel prices before the October Budget.

Geopolitical turmoil and our over-reliance on oil and gas has caught the Irish Government on the back foot. National scrutiny has intensified, and in the coming months the Government will find itself repeatedly intervening in the economy to cope with inflation and address the need for appropriate sustainable energy infrastructure.

There is already some movement in this space. Last week, Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan announced a plan to generate 5,000 MW of offshore wind by 2030, enough to power 3.5 million Irish homes.

Developers have been invited to apply, but Wind Energy Ireland has claimed that Ireland is still six years away from generating energy from new offshore wind farms. Although wind is no immediate solution to our current energy complications, it does bring us one step closer towards energy self-sufficiency.

Foreign investment and regulatory red tape

In recent weeks, interest from German-led investment in offshore wind off the West coast has intensified with the establishment of the German-Irish Hydrogen Council by the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce.

This interest is coming at an opportune time. Pressure from the EU to reduce our carbon emissions is mounting, and public scrutiny of fossil fuel energy infrastructure is at an all-time high. We will, however, have to get out of our own way if we want to achieve anything meaningful: Ireland has a chequered past when it comes to foreign investment in our energy sector.

In 2019, Equnior, a Norwegian state-owned multinational energy company, partnered with the ESB. That April, they jointly announced they would build a €2 billion 1.4-GW floating offshore wind farm off the Clare and Kerry coast, which would have been the Atlantic Ocean’s first offshore wind farm. This was a 10-year plan that would supply power to more than 1.6 million Irish homes.

However, in November 2021, Equnior announced it would pull the plug on this investment. It was dissatisfied with the Irish regulatory process and our complicated planning regime.  Ireland’s loss of Equinor exposed an uncomfortable truth: our tremendous ability for self-sabotage. Despite the Government’s desire for advancement in our sustainable energy sector, our regulatory process, although thorough, is failing to align with investors.

Ireland's dense red tape regime discouraged Norway's Equinor from investment in offshore wind, but new Government measures may streamline the process.

To operate off our shores, foreign investors must navigate the Maritime Area Planning Bill, secondary legislation, and an offshore grid connection assessment process by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, among many other hoops. It’s no shock that companies like Equinor would rather invest in projects with a faster turnaround than spend time and resources caught up in red tape.

To help streamline the process and maximise the conversion rate of projects, Minister Ryan’s latest plans will see the commencement of the Maritime Area Consent (MAC) Regime, which will allow him to directly assess MAC applicants in key areas such as technical and financial competency. However, even provided everything goes to plan, it will still be late 2027 or early 2028 before these new energy projects come to fruition.

Communicating sustainability

Sustainability and renewable energy are complex; transitioning entire economies to new fuels and practices requires careful management and strategic communications to ensure public, industry, and political buy-in.

In the Irish Government’s case, there are three main focus areas: progressing towards EU targets, obtaining and developing the required infrastructure for renewable energy, and maintaining the support of both the public and foreign investment across potentially years-long timelines.

1.  The legal element

Ireland is now in a legally binding agreement to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050; this consists of a 51% reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. Ireland’s legal obligations have set clear emission reduction targets in law, intensifying our need to fix our overreliance on fossil fuels.

The Government must strike a healthy balance in meeting EU targets with fit-for-purpose policy and realistic transition timeframes that don’t require public backtracking and goalpost-shifting. We are still reliant on fossil fuels and will remain so for a number of years.

Ultimately, however, the Government cannot lose sight of its legal obligations and economic ambitions: even if the transition from fossil fuels does cause short-term pain, its commitment to EU targets will open up Ireland to further foreign investment from innovative energy companies. Demonstrable proof of this must be central in communications with industry and the public.

2. Differing public opinion

The Government must address the public’s climate concerns through consistent, definitive policymaking.

In creating and communicating this policymaking, it must acknowledge differing public opinions. On one hand, we have a general consensus of frustration with our overdependency on non-renewables; on the other, there is a cohort that wants reassurance that fossil fuels remain our primary source of energy in the short term, particularly through the current period of inflation and energy price hikes.

To avoid the appearance of inconsistent or on-the-fly policymaking, the Government must acknowledge that while demonstrable progress is being made towards sustainable energy provision, including the introduction of streamlining regulation and policy measures to reduce the impact of price hikes,  short-term use of fossils fuels will continue.

Minister Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party, advocates for increased adoption of hydrogen gas as an alternative fuel source.

3. Demonstrating regulatory reform

Given Ireland’s net-zero legal obligations and public expectations on climate action, the Government must juggle proactive policy implementation with transparency on delivery. Many of these energy projects will take time to deliver; realistic rather than aspirational timelines are crucial to ensure foreign investment is not gained only to be lost.

Lessons must be learned from the Equinor case. Through a targeted communications campaign, the Government can reassure investors that although the regulatory process can be thorough, it is being streamlined.

Minister Ryan’s oversight of MAC applicants is most certainly a step in the right direction and communicates clear intentions of progression. This must be a core part of the Government’s communications strategy with foreign investors and other national governments.

Context and transparency

Support for renewable energy infrastructure is at an all-time high across all levels of society, while current complications with fuel supply and price inflation present the Irish Government with the ultimate fossil fuel get-out clause.

However, the Government will be challenged managing public scrutiny. There are EU targets to meet through fair, effective policy. It needs to design and execute a strong reputation-recovering and enhancing communication strategy targeted at foreign investors that demonstrates our commitment to renewable energy projects on reasonable timelines.

Delays and complications will occur, but a transparent, communications-focused Government will be able to minimise disruption and stay the course towards publicly supported sustainable infrastructure development.

About the author

Cillian advises a range of clients in the tech, recruitment, finance, and health sectors, focusing on corporate communications, media relations, and policy and media monitoring. He has a keen interest in industrial economic policy. Prior to 360, he worked as a policy analyst at Accenture and completed an MSc in Public Policy at Dublin City University.

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