Learning from a green town on the Irish border

I’d like to return to the theme of energy cooperation in Ireland. This month’s belated row over the purchase (announced in July) of Northern Ireland Electricity by the Irish government-owned Electricity Supply Board – which, interestingly, saw Peter Robinson and his DUP Minister for Industry Arlene Foster take different positions – is a small storm in a unionist teacup and will pass. The great majority of people in politics and business in Northern Ireland agree that the single electricity market in Ireland is here to stay, and makes huge sense on an isolated island at the extreme end of the European energy chain.1

What also makes sense is energy efficiency and conservation. The latest figures on the www.energy.eu website show that Ireland is the fourth most dependent country in Europe on external fossil fuels: 90.9% dependent on these very insecure energy sources, with only tiny Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg worse off. The equivalent figure for Northern Ireland is 93%.

Whatever one thinks about climate change, in a world where fossil fuels are running out, oil prices are rising and ‘peak oil’ is only a matter of years away, this should set the alarm bells ringing. Policy makers have woken up and heard these bells to a certain extent, with the relevant government departments North and South agreeing that the island of Ireland should set itself the very ambitious target of providing 40% of its electricity from renewable sources (mainly onshore wind) by 2020. How realistic this aim is will become brutally clear in the next few years.

However Irish people may not have woken up to the reality that every one of us needs to make huge changes to our heat and electricity usage – at work and at home – if we and our children and our grandchildren are going to be able to continue the materially prosperous lifestyles so many of us have become accustomed to.  This will require a real drive to save and conserve energy: to be ‘energy efficient’ in current parlance.

What has this got to do with cross-border cooperation, you might ask. Well, it happens that Ireland’s first fully-integrated ‘sustainable energy community’ is in a border town, Dundalk. By the end of 2010 the Dundalk Sustainable Energy Zone (SEZ), a four-square kilometre area in the south of the town where 2,500 people live and 3,500 people work, will have reached targets of 40% improvement in energy efficiency in selected residential, industrial and commercial buildings and an annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 9,000 tonnes.

The Dundalk 2020 initiative (so-called because of the need to reach specific EU targets for renewable energy by the year 2020) has involved all sectors in the town: the local authorities, housing providers, business and industry, Dundalk Institute of Technology, local schools, the local hospital and largest hotel, shops and leisure centres. Major firms like Heinz, Xerox and Glen Dimplex have signed up to energy efficiency agreements. As a result of an article in the New York Times about the town’s drive for sustainability, in which Heinz featured, its Dundalk plant is now seen as an environmental and energy leader within that multinational company. The rest of the town outside the SEZ has also taken part in individual initiatives, such as people in local housing estates being coached in how to use energy in a more sustainable manner.

Dundalk 2020 and the Dundalk SEZ are led by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), an admirable body which oversees the implementation of Irish government policy in the environmentally sustainable production, supply and use of energy in the Republic. This is a far cry from the fractured and chaotic situation in Northern Ireland, where practically every government department seems to have responsibility, however marginal, for some aspect of energy efficiency, conservation and innovation. The result is that Northern Ireland is lagging well behind both the Republic and Scotland when it comes to coordinated and systematic energy efficiency initiatives. The SEAI is now extending the learning of Dundalk, as a sustainable energy ‘exemplar town’ where all sectors of local society work together, to other towns south of the border.

Dundalk is also involved in an EU CONCERTO consortium, along with towns in Austria (Mödling) and Switzerland (Neuchatel), to develop sustainable energy zones. Interestingly, Newry – along with Aachen in Germany and the Italian Ministry for the Environment – is an ‘observer’ partner in this project, and has already identified an area of the town where it intends to develop its own sustainable energy zone. Is there room for a more ambitious cross-border dimension to this pioneering work in energy efficiency and conservation on the island of Ireland?  The East Border Region cross-border group of local authorities – stretching from North Down and Ards in the north to Louth and Meath in the south – is currently working on an EU INTERREG funding application for just such a project, along with the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD). Watch this space.

Andy Pollak

1 See ‘Facing future energy challenges on an all-island basis’ (A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, July 2010)

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.