Interview with Mark Ennis
In this article, Neil meets with Mark Ennis, Chair of SSE Ireland on day 2 of the second week of COP26. SSE is a key sponsor and partner of the UK COP Presidency. The conversation takes place in the SSE Hydro, located on the conference campus.
Mark, I would be interested in your views on progress during the first week of the conference, particularly regarding the prospects for enhanced greenhouse gas reduction pledges, and the provision of financial assistance to developing countries. And whether the EU’s negotiation stance is having a positive impact on other Parties.
If you’re an idealist, you would expect all the actions to happen tomorrow and the all the action plans to get us to 1.5 degrees right away. But the reality is that we have a process to go through. I think I would judge COP26’s success on the basis that after Paris in 2015 we were looking at a four degree temperature increase, but with all the actions now announced we have that at around two degrees. So, progress is being made.
And what’s an interesting change for me is the climate science is no longer a ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’, it’s a definitive known. As the science has hardened up, it has hardened the resolve of policymakers, although I still think there’s a challenge for politicians in going through a just transition. Let me give you a simple example from the United States. Louisiana depends on oil and gas for 80% of its revenues. So how does the State Governor, who is in favour of meeting the 1.5 degree target, go about bringing along the constituents on whom he relies? To gradually change the direction of the ship, we need to bring everybody along.
As the old saying goes, politicians know what action they need to undertake to address the climate crisis. But what they don’t know is how to get re-elected once they have done it.
In contrast to the UK, Ireland doesn’t have a separate Nationally Determined Contribution, but it does have an ambitious climate action plan as part of the EU offering. I’d be interested in your views on the implications for different sectors.
SSE as a group has closed its coal fired power plants as a first step, and the oil-fired plants will come after that, but for the coal fired plants it was very important for us to transition the workforce through retraining to work in the renewables sector. Some workers may find it a natural point at which to retire, but there is a core group of people for whom we have provide a solution.
The Government has to do four things to get change happening. First, a clear policy and strategy so people understand the direction of travel. Second, it needs to invest in a robust infrastructure that will deliver. Thirdly, transparency on the consenting process to attract corporates, and fourthly a need for the just transition, which we just mentioned.
It did a good on the Climate Bill, and the 2021 plan has robust targets – tough ones but good ones - that set a path that everybody understands and there is support for, which is fundamental. But in terms of robust infrastructure, I think we’re lagging behind. The fact that we’re currently spilling 17% of renewable electricity is a problem. We’ve called for a million EVs on the road by 2030 – where is the charging infrastructure to support that? And the goal of 500,000 homes to be retrofitted – how does an individual go about that?
SSE has developed a one-stop shop, sending in an engineer to assess the customer’s property and say what’s needed, tying up with the provision of low-cost finance. That’s the sort of infrastructure that’s lagging.
The Government needs to draw out the timelines from now to 2030 to identify what needs to happen when, because there’s slippage already happening. For example, a renewables support scheme for offshore was meant to be coming in 2021 but has since moved to 2022 and there’s even talk of it going to 2023. That puts huge pressure on the back end of the period, trying to deliver. We need action from Government, and we need it sooner. The Marine Planning Bill is good, but it should have been in earlier. If we’re aiming to have 5GW of offshore wind by 2030, we’re already putting ourselves behind the eight-ball.
On that last point, Maritime Area Planning Bill, 10 years in gestation, cannot be enacted soon enough. It must be frustrating that isn’t yet legally possible for wind developers even to conduct surveys beyond the 12 nautical mile limit.
What’s equally frustrating is that SSE has a consented windfarm off Arklow, but there doesn’t seem to be any urgency by the Minister responsible for foreshore licensing. We could have it built by 2025 if we were given permission now.
In fairness, that Minister does have a lot of other pressing priorities, not the least of which is delivery of additional housing. There are other areas of policy tension between the two relevant Government departments, including the need to address housing supply and affordability, while also underwriting a massive energy efficiency retrofitting campaign on the existing stock of domestic and commercial properties. It’s good to see the provision of up to 100% support for low-income households.
Yes, it’s part of a just transition that is very necessary. But my point stands - SSE has a €2 billion offshore wind project ready and waiting to go. The planning process needs to be urgently sorted. If we are going to achieve the 51% emissions reduction by 2030, it will involve electrifying heat and transport. Planning inertia must not frustrate the roll out of renewables and the enabling electricity grid.
That sentiment is something that many of our members would echo, which is why it continues to be one of the priorities of our Better Lives Better Business campaign. Thanks again for taking the time to speak with Ibec.