He has become the lightning rod for criticism, the easy mark, the whipping boy — whatever you want to call it — for the Government, but Eamon Ryan shrugs his shoulders.

Critics say he is aloof, out of touch, and too professorial and lofty in his public utterances; his supporters and many environmental and climate change activists view him as a politician who is not afraid to tell the unvarnished truth that change is coming.

However, does the environment, climate, and transport minister see himself as out of touch, especially with those outside of urban areas, in the heart of rural Ireland?

“I hope I surprise people if they meet me. You know what they say, scratch a Dub and you find someone from the country underneath.

“My roots are as deep in rural Ireland as anyone. In fact, I spent most of my working life before I went into politics bringing tourists around the country.

“For 12 years before I joined the Oireachtas, I spent all my time in rural Ireland and brought people into rural Ireland, and have an incredible knowledge of rural Ireland. I don’t think there are many people who would have as much knowledge of the highways and byways around the country.

“If that’s the perception [that he is out of touch with rural Ireland], I think it’s slightly misplaced. When it comes to divisive politics, if we think the whole thing is defined by Dublin versus rural Ireland, I don’t agree with that split. As a country, we back each other.”

Mr Ryan acknowledges that personal criticism stings but says it is the opinion of those closest to him that matters most, while a long time in politics has shown him that people are fundamentally good-natured.

“Of course personal criticism will get to you, everyone likes to be praised and flattered, and not frowned at. I think I have a sense of perspective on it. In truth, it’s your friends and family that really influence how you feel.

Climate change protesters outside the Dáil in February this year. Eamon Ryan believes the public is on board with making changes. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

“For all the personal criticism, you’d be surprised when you go out around the country at how supportive people are. Irish people are by and large decent.

“You go canvassing door to door, and on Twitter and television and online and radio, it’s all so aggressive. 

“But in real life, Irish people are very pleasant, at least the vast majority, but also surprisingly supportive. That makes it easier.”

He says he has a sense of urgency in what needs to be achieved.

“We are in an ecological crisis and, to a certain extent, you could kind of obsess on your own how you are seen. But the work we are doing gives you a sense of resilience, that we need to do this. 

My sense is that most people buy into it. Most Irish people do like the idea of a green island going green.

“Immediate changes are difficult but you are arguing for something that has an inherent logic behind it. Even in the midst of a row or how you deliver it, the underlying motivation is genuine.”

Some three decades in politics has taught him it will be someone else’s turn soon enough to be the lightning rod for people to vent their frustrations, he says.

Environmentalists say he and his party have not gone far enough, while critics insist the changes coming are arbitrary and divisive. That means lots of people will have to be brought along, irrespective of what side of the coin they fall on.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Politics is strange, you learn over time that it turns. You wait 10 minutes and things turn; resilience is part of the whole thing.

“In all my 30 years, there was one period in 2011 to 2016 I was outside the Dáil and in a way it was a very useful time for me because we spent a lot of time thinking about how do we tell this message, how do we tell this difficult story.

“We did it in a very creative way. I went down to the Burren College of Art and we brought some of the best climate experts from all over the world and we were asking how do we tell the story of the change we have to make. It was over four or five days, but it really worked for me.

“There’s some simple maxims like you ask people for help rather than tell them what to do. You admit uncertainty. Some of the technological changes that are coming, you learn as they evolve. 

You speak to the heart as well as the head.

“You speak about the home. There are so many things in the environmental movement about the big global elements, these huge forces, you have to bring it back home.

“Also, one of the things I thought about is that every place matters, every person matters. In that, the politics of it and the nature of the politics is that you don’t do this as a divisive tool, you don’t point the finger at people or blame people by saying you’re the problem or you’re the other side of this, and I think that’s very important.

“I think actually in Ireland — OK, you get all the hoo haa and all the latest stories and rows about this, that, and the other — but I think there is an underlying truth in Ireland that most people get the science.

“They realise this could be good for us as we make the change and want to do it.”

Wind and hydrogen will be ‘game-changer’ for transition to renewable energy

Large-scale wind and hydrogen energy production off Ireland’s west coast will be the “economic opportunity of our time” and a “game changer” for the country’s transition to renewable energy, Mr Ryan said.

Mr Ryan said Munster would have centres of power for ramping up offshore wind and green hydrogen, with Cork Harbour and the Shannon Estuary at the forefront of the renewable revolution.

Onshore wind has been productive but has its limits within local community tolerance, he said.

Some 14 windfarms won contracts in the second auction under the Government’s renewable electricity support scheme (Ress) at the end of last week, which will provide 414 megawatts (mw) of the 4,000mw of new onshore wind energy required by the climate action plan.

Wind turbines in Co Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane
Wind turbines in Co Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

While Ress dealt with onshore wind, offshore will be “transformative” over the coming years, Mr Ryan said.

“On onshore, the auctions are for people who want to build a windfarm or solar farm bidding so that they get the right to do so and payment under the public service obligation (PSO) to do so from this auction system. 

“By 2025, that will get us to about 55% renewable electricity. We’re currently at about 41% or 42%. We’re going to about 80% by the end of the decade. We’ll do five of these auctions — we’ve done two and have another three — that is the path we are on.”

He said there was a limit to what could be done onshore.

“We’re going to do a lot more but there is a certain point,” he said. “First of all, the grid can’t cope with it and secondly, communities don’t want more. In the likes of Kerry and West Cork and Donegal and Mayo, there are a lot of windfarms already — the places where you’d expect it, there is already wind.

“We will get more and we should but it is not endless. That is progressing and solar is particularly beneficial because, even if Ireland isn’t particularly the sunniest place in the world, it balances well with wind. It tends to deliver power in a way sometimes when the wind isn’t blowing.”

He said offshore would start to be developed at the same time.

“Ireland was one of the first countries to develop offshore. We did stop but we stopped for good reason in the sense that we had a more competitive, lower-cost power supply in the onshore.

“We’re now going to go gangbusters to deliver the offshore as well as the onshore system.

“In Government, I think we have a lot of the plans in place but it is about delivery. We’re setting up teams in Government which are about accelerating delivery. We’re learning from what we did in Covid, bringing agencies together, different Government departments together, outside expertise. One of those teams is in offshore.

“We’ve just opened up the first round of consenting projects and there are seven relevant projects, which are projects that have been in the planning system for the last 10 years. Those projects will go into an auction later this year and, if they get through the auction and they have their consent, they will then have to go into the planning system and they will have to go to construction in the years 2026 and 2027 and start generating. I’m confident they will, we’re going all out to make sure we deliver that.”

Solar panels will also play an important role in the transition to renewables in the coming years.
Solar panels will also play an important role in the transition to renewables in the coming years.

There is also the second phase, which will see Munster becoming one of the most crucial locations in the renewable energy revolution, Mr Ryan said.

Phase three will be the “really big” one, he insisted. It will see the power of the Atlantic being harnessed to make Ireland a leader in the offshore wind industry.

“At the same time, in the lifetime of this Government, we have to do what is called the second phase of projects, and that will go not just in the Irish Sea but the southern waters off the Port of Cork or Waterford, and the west off the likes of Limerick and the Shannon Estuary. That’s the start of a much bigger phase.

“Those first and second phases will deliver the 5 gigawatt of offshore we want by the end of this decade — 5GW would be what Ireland is generating at the moment, if it was going full tilt, that’s currently what we are using.

“Then in the next two-and-a-half years of this Government, we will also conclude a design of phase three — that’s the really big project. That’s where we really go at scale into the Atlantic.

“Our sea area is seven times our land area. The west is where the wind is. You see these systems in the Atlantic where the anti-cyclone systems work their way up from the Caribbean and they go up off the northwest coast of Ireland particularly. If you look at the wind in Europe at the moment, there’s hardly anything on a given day.”

Mr Ryan said Ireland was not far behind the Danes.

“There’s times in the Irish system when we are running almost 75% of the power system on wind. Phase three is going to be the game changer. This is the economic opportunity of our time.

“Look at the Shannon Estuary, look at Cork Harbour, both are world-class deep-water ports. Some of our biggest energy infrastructure —like Whitegate, Aghada refinery and power generation, all the big biopharma plants — will all be looking for clean energy sources. If we have that offshore power coming ashore there, if we can convert it to hydrogen, and use that as an energy stock. We used to make fertiliser in Cork Harbour, net nitrate. With ammonia, does that not give us the ability to convert that wind into the likes of those sort of products and export them or use them for ourselves?

“That’s the real prize with offshore wind — it’s not just that you generate the power, it’s what you use it for. That’s why it is such an economic opportunity.”

Shannon as global guinea pig for less carbon-intensive fuels

Shannon Airport could become a leading global guinea pig for the aviation industry’s move to less carbon-intensive fuel, with talks between the US and Irish governments taking place to use it as an experimental base for US airlines.

Eamon Ryan said that as aviation tried to figure out how to reduce emissions, experimenting with less harmful fuels would be key and he volunteered Shannon as a “perfect” airport to do so.

When asked by the Irish Examiner why aviation was conspicuously left out of the five-year carbon budgets, Mr Ryan said it was an international issue to be resolved rather than a domestic one.

Environmental campaigners and scientists have criticised the lack of detail around how to reduce emissions in aviation, which were estimated to be about 2.5% globally in the years before the pandemic struck.

The aviation industry is working on ways to reduce emissions. Picture: Eamon Ward
The aviation industry is working on ways to reduce emissions. Picture: Eamon Ward

Carbon budgets were announced in October 2020 and unveiled last October. They include all greenhouse gases in each five-year cycle and will allocate emissions ceilings to the likes of motorists, households, farmers, businesses, and industry. However, aviation and shipping were not included.

“Aviation is out of the carbon budgets. It’s in a different category because it is international because by definition it is shared by two countries at least,” said Mr Ryan.

“I think the main approach in aviation is coming from the EU, the Fit for 55 package. In the coming weeks, there will be a meeting of the transport council in Brussels and a lot of these issues are now coming to fruition.”

There are opportunities in the likes of Shannon Airport that Ireland could turn to an advantage if the move to so-called “cleaner” aviation fuels emerged, he said.

“I was in Washington DC for St Patrick’s Day and met the transport secretary, Pete Buttigieg, and asked him could we — if both governments are looking at sustainable aviation, switching away from the current aviation system — look at using sustainable fuels, probably biofuels at first, but then moving to the expected synthetic fuels.

“We would look and see if the possibility of Shannon being a kind of test location, because it has always been that. Shannon, when it comes to lower emissions, has one of the longest runways, so you can take a heavier payload and then you can reduce the emissions that way.

“It has a legacy infrastructure that the Russians actually built, where we have fuel storage tanks under the apron in the airport, with the jetty in the Shannon Estuary, so that the oil fuels can be shipped in and pumped directly into the storage facilities right under the airport.

“What I’m saying, working with the management and board in Shannon, is could we turn that to our advantage and say to the Americans, if we are doing zero-carbon transatlantic flights and you want a matching air field on the European side that will make sure it has the sustainable fuels available, then we think Shannon could be that airport.

“He was absolutely interested. Shannon Airport is working on putting specific proposals together. The advantage of it is that you are starting to be part of the transition to a better system. I bet there would be a demand among people on that route to have a zero-carbon option. Where do we want to be on that? Up front and part of it? I’m absolutely certain that we do and I think Shannon is perfectly well placed for it.”

Data centres must fit climate targets

Data centre operators “cannot have an open door” and will have to fit into Ireland’s climate targets, “rather than us work around them”, if the burgeoning problem of their mass energy consumption is to be tackled, said Mr Ryan.

It was revealed this month that data centres’ electricity consumption increased 32% in 2021 from the previous year rose 265% from the start of 2015 to the end of last year.

Dr Paul Deane, senior research fellow at the University College Cork-based MaREI centre for energy, climate and marine research, said data centre growth could not continue to rise at such levels if emissions were to be reduced.

“Something has to give. You can’t grow energy use and energy consumption and reduce emissions at the same time. It doesn’t really work that way. We have these really strict climate ambitions and targets in Ireland, and growing energy use and reducing consumption are just not compatible,” he said.

Data centres' electricity consumption increased 32% last year.
Data centres’ electricity consumption increased 32% last year.

“There is a tricky decision for the Government to be made. It has to decide which one it wants to give priority to because it is unlikely that they’ll be able to be done together. We are going in the wrong direction and unfortunately we are going in the wrong direction quickly.”

Mr Ryan conceded that data centres had exacerbated the squeeze on Ireland’s electricity system, adding that the conundrum was giving pause for thought amid much criticism from environmental, energy, and political activists alike.

“We have a very tight situation regarding electricity. One element in that is that we have so many data centres coming on stream. That is clear. Since July 2020, there hasn’t been any new data centres approved, pretty much the lifetime of this Government. That is for a reason. We have a real supply capacity issue.

“It’s not that we will say no to data centres forever and a day — there is a real role and benefit to the country in having them — but what they will have to be is fitting within our climate targets rather than us work around them. That means we have to site them in locations that help us balance the grid and use the grid wisely.”

Dr Deane said progressive data centre operators should be encouraged to re-use their waste heat for powering local communities — a sentiment with which Mr Ryan agreed.

“It means they will have to have the capability of helping us balance this grid by using some of their back-up power in a flexible way that supports the grid,” he said. “It means heating local communities — that’s where it starts to be really efficient and make sense.

“When we get this offshore wind at scale, that then also means we can run data centres because we will have this electricity that we will want to use. It’s not saying no to them but we will have to manage it.

“We can’t have an open door. We have stopped taking applications and have done that for a good long time now, recognising that we have to build up power capacity and we have to make sure that they are part of a low-carbon system. I think that is doable.”