Pat O'Doherty: Why EVs and heat pumps are key to decarbonising Ireland

As an industry and as a nation we need to completely rethink how we use energy and where we get it from, but it is not clear yet what this means in practice. Faced with emission targets and the desire to create a brighter future for all, we need practical and affordable plans that can drive immediate action.

by Pat O'Doherty, Chief Executive of ESB

Two key technologies that offer immediate and long term carbon savings are electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps. Both EVs and heat pumps are proven, available and capable of halting  the growth in our carbon emissions. By adopting these technologies, Ireland would have an early start in two of our most carbon intensive sectors – transport and heating – which together account for over two thirds of energy emissions.

To meet the targets, we envisage that 30% of households will have a heat pump by 2030 and 60% of new car sales will be EVs.

At about 75 per cent efficiency, EVs are three times more efficient than internal combustion engines. Similarly heat pumps are at least three to four times more efficient than the most efficient domestic boilers.  Even with our current electricity generation mix, they will reduce carbon and improve air quality. However, as high carbon electricity is replaced over time with low carbon alternatives, further CO2 reductions will automatically follow without further investment by householders.

Driving progress in etransport

In the short 10 years since ecars was established, huge progress has been made nationally and internationally in advancing the etransport agenda. According to the Irish EV Owners’ Association Website, one in 37 new cars sold in April 2018 had a socket with more than 30 EV models now available in Ireland. Indeed, according to a recent Ipsos Mori study, one in seven survey respondents said they are likely or very likely to buy an EV within the next five years, rising to one in five in April of this year.

The National Planning Framework has identified the need to progressively electrify mobility systems and proposes that no non-zero emission vehicles will be sold in Ireland after 2030.  

The question for now for EVs is not “will they take off?”, but rather, “how can we make it happen fast enough to meet the targets?”.

Adoption of Heat Pumps

 

Electric heat pumps are at a very different stage of adoption. Around 700,000 homes in Ireland continue to rely on high carbon fossil oil for their domestic heating – essentially operating as mini-thermal power plants which will continue to pump out carbon year after year unless they are replaced.

Minister Naughten has made it clear that it is time to move away from using fossil fuels to heat our homes, and has backed this up with a decision to fund heat pumps under the SEAI Better Energy Homes scheme and stop funding fossil fuel boilers.

However despite their widespread use in much colder climates around the world, heat pumps are still not widely considered as an alternative to thermal heating systems in Ireland.

In fact, research carried out for ESB shows that over 60% of Irish adults don’t know what a heat pump is. 

Marginal cost, maximum benefit

The installation cost of heat pumps is often cited as a barrier because of the investment needed in insulation to optimise their performance. For home owners this is understandable, but in the context of the national carbon targets, it shouldn’t be a consideration. Regardless of  the heating technology used, there is an imperative to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of Ireland’s housing stock.  Most oil dependent homes are badly insulated and ventilated, and require investment.  The fact that thermal boilers adequately heat badly insulated homes shouldn’t be a reason to ignore energy efficiency.

The marginal cost of installing a heat pump once proper energy efficiency measures are in place is minimal, so further investment in deep retrofit supports and in programmes like Tipperary Energy Agency’s Superhomes should be prioritised. 

This isn’t an issue for residential new builds of course, where high standards of insulation are a given and heat pumps are a cost neutral option.  An increasing number of developers are making this choice  with the proportion of new homes with heat pumps rising to almost 40% in 2017. But even so, in almost two out of three cases, thermal boilers are still being installed, locking in new carbon to the system.  If this were to continue out to 2050, we conservatively estimate a further two megatonnes of carbon would be added through residential new builds, ultimately resulting in additional abatement costs of between 40 and 80 million euro.

Significant Opportunity

The Nearly Zero Energy Building (NZEB) Regulations that have recently been consulted on present a massive opportunity to set ambitious standards with little or no cost to new homebuyers. 

This is a one off opportunity to turn off the tap and prevent further carbon being added to our future housing stock.

Choosing this path would require minimal capital investment and offset significant longer term carbon abatement costs as well as making a real difference to people’s lives  in terms of air quality, comfort and cost savings.

This is an excerpt from Pat O’Doherty’s speech at the Energy Ireland Conference on Tuesday June 19.