Ireland v Germany: supply and demand renewables

Time for Ireland to start selling Germans something more than pretty postcard views
Pic (cc) Final Gather

Ireland you messed up. You got greedy and now you owe big banks in Germany lots and lots and lots of money.*

Payback is tough, but maybe today’s Irish Times leader points to a solution. A post-Fukishima Germany is rethinking its energy mix. Ireland, you haven’t even fully thought out yours in the first place, but look west and you’ll see an answer both yourselves and Frau Merkel may find to your liking. What’s more, the interconnectors running energy off the island of Ireland and into mainland Europe are close to coming online which means you get to enter a market formally reserved for big boys and girls only.

Supply and demand, debt for wind. Easy no? Oh, and as an upside, you get to turn your desolate western ports into green jobs incubators. Sorta like Dong Energy is doing in Belfast. Double win, all across the Atlantic coast.

And here’s a bit of advice Ireland. Get this done quick. Because if you don’t, the smart German electricity companies are going to buy up your waters and do this anyway. Who do you think electrified Ireland in the first place?

* Let’s ignore for the sake of simplicity the complicit and profit making motives of German banks in lending money to greedy Irish developers in the first place.


Irish ministers were in London this week discussing renewable energy sales. Very neighbourly of Britain to offer to subsidise (I’m guessing) cap-ex projects. Thanks chaps.

Electricity and the Building of Irish Modernity

Ardnacrusha: The 1920's biggest Irish tourist attraction

The country can’t afford it, it will take too long and what is more, there simply is not the demand. All excuses used to knock back, initially, Ireland’s first national power generation scheme, Ardnacrusha, in the 1920s and then the Rural Electrification Scheme in the forties.

Ardnacrusha was a monument to modernity, a huge concrete hydro plant built on Ireland’s largest waterway, the Shannon. And this in a country that had barely emerged from the fogs of Victorian colonialism. In fact, even that seems far too grand a concept for Saorstát Éireann in 1925, a newly forged country run by “young men standing amongst the ruins of one administration with the foundations of another not yet laid and with wild men screaming through the key-hole” to re-hash Kevin O’Higgins famous description of early government.

Ireland was a country with zero industry, zero money and outside of Dublin, zero electricity. And yet with the help of some vorsprung durch Siemens, it had the imagination and the willpower to sign off a nation changing capital project. The cost, £5m, 20% of the government’s annual budget at the time. What’s more, the project came in on time and went over-budget by a mere £150,000.

With memories of Ardnacrusha still alive, the Rural Electrification Scheme was conceived in 1945 to bring light to the majority of Ireland’s two million rural dwellers. Again, the scheme was described as madness. It took already 2,000 miles of line to supply Ireland’s towns and cities, it would take a further 75,000 miles to reach the parts other electricity schemes could not. 1,200 transformers existed in the country in 1945. Another 100,000 would be required to finish the job. And roughly one million wooden poles would have to be found somewhere (Finland!). Ireland was still an agrarian nation, the war had destroyed trade with its only market, the UK, and as in the 20s, it had not a pot to piss in. Yet 15 years later the scheme was nearly done, Ireland’s dispersed population had at last running water in their kitchens, lightbulbs in their hallways and the ability to serve Guinness Extra Cold in the local.

I recall all of this for two reasons, the first, I’ve spend the week reading the history of electricity in Ireland. It makes for a tidy case study of local and national identity, technology and politics. But more than that, it illustrates how the identity of Ireland was produced (indeed reflexively co-produced) in the mix of nationalism, ambition, engineering feat and civic pride that went into these crazy big projects. And maybe that pot needs to be stirred again.

The second reason, the week begun with a pair of regressive statements from leading members of Ireland’s commentariat, Myers and O’Toole. Myers produced an unusually il-informed libertarian monolgoue on the foolishness of investment in wind energy in light of this harshest of winters. O’Toole meanwhile would be the Hugo Chavez of Western Europe, bemoaning foreign ownership and low extraction taxes of hydrocarbons beneath Irish waters. Nationalise them all he didn’t quite say but was certainly well on the road. But in that he missed the big point, as did Myers. Ireland is in a position not entirely dissimilar to that of the 1920s. A tired old administration hasn’t even bothered ordering 2011 diaries, its work is done. The new government is going to be faced with some big choices, propping up banks, endorsing the EU-IMF deal, and as O’Toole alludes to, the hegemonic kowtowing to Big Oil engaged by their predecessors.

They will likely claim, as will governments elsewhere in Europe, that big capital projects are off the table for now. The rules of our new austerity prevent such dreaming. But that’s the thing about dreams, they’re usually the events of our histories re-imagined. And as oil heads back to $100 per barrel, if we were to bring out our pencil and squared paper, what would an energy-secure Ireland (or UK for that matter) look like now I wonder. Maybe, if their number can be found, it’s time to call back those nice men from Siemens.

4 Links: Cheerios, mad scientists and the new local socialism

Cheerio Maps (c) Stamen Design
Pic: Cheerio Maps (c) Stamen Design

Fun things and not so fun things from the past few days.


Cheerio Maps. Let’s start with breakfast. Real estate in the San Francisco Bay area generally doesn’t do it for me, but pretty map overlays do. Some amazing data mapping here from Stamen Design. My friend Tomás does pretty things with circles. I bet he’d like this. Real estate is boring but there are lots of useful applications for this approach I bet.


Cancún wrap: IPCC scientists still stuck in the same dumb groove. This is super frustrating. Mildly optimistic reports came out of COP16. That’s fine, well done all. Kate Sheppard wraps up the fortnight with an interview with IPCC vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele who displays a sense of naivete not seen since the Milky Bar kid last rode into town.

[KS]: What is the role of scientists in pushing back against this skepticism and the ongoing anti-science campaign?
JV: The results of all the scientific analysis are almost all going in the same direction. I think if scientists remain calm, stick with science, and explain, and re-explain, if needed, the basis for their conclusions, at some point their honesty will go through any cloud of other arguments that some are trying to put in between them and the public. (my italics)

Seriously. W! T! F! If scientists keeps explaining the truth to all of those not so bright sceptics they’ll see the light and change their minds? Yeah, and X-Factor is a meritocratic talent show where if you try hard enough, dreams really do come true. Van Ypersele is the vice-chair of an organisation which has been put through the cheese grater over the last year by a well funded and extremely well strategised campaign to protect Big Energy and other interests. And right now those interests are presenting a far more palatable truth than the IPCC can muster. Let’s hope 2011 is wakey-wakey year and the IPCC gets a clue.


Localism and renewables – opportunities and challenges. Speaking of 2011, the localism bill was released this week with a promise to cede more power to (ostensibly local) people. I suspect people in the main do not want power, they want schools, libraries and services that just work, but I’ll save the next chapter of my social contract lecture for another day. One area the bill will impact is the UK’s slowly growing renewables and community energy sector. So check out the link above for a very brief rundown of where the issue may emerge.


Finally, a thought piece from a man who since sometime before the last election all of a sudden became the UK’s smartest political commentator, John Harris, writing with Neal Lawson. It’s from a few weeks ago but I forgot to mention it. So, who’s up for a New Socialism, and is it any different from the last one.

Ireland: We Have Never Been Sovereign

Irish donkeys
Photo (cc) jmulot.

On June 11th 2004 a referendum was held in Ireland. Should a child born on the island have an automatic right to citizenship the nation was asked. A constitutional right that had existed since the foundation of the state in 1922  was overturned by an incredible 79% of the voting public. Children now born in Ireland’s hospitals to non-national parents had a fight on their hands if they wanted a harp emblazoned passport.

At this juncture it is fair to ask if any child now born in Ireland would want citizenship of that sorry republic, but that’s a cheap shot and beside the point. Which is this, at a moment when national hubris, property speculation, and all-round back slapping were reaching their apex, Ireland turned her gaze inward and essentially told the world “right lads, we’ve finally made it, and we’re sharing the spoils with no one“. I think that was the first time I’ve really been embarrassed and ashamed to be admit to being Irish. Funny how some things change and some things don’t.

A week of prevaricating and straightforward lies by those that would claim to be Ireland’s leaders ended last night with Cowen and Lenihan admitting that yes, a bail out is coming, yes the IMF and EU are involved, and yes, this is going to hurt. I want to focus on one theme that has been running through the press coverage all week and perhaps applies not only to Ireland, but to the every other EU member state, both those inside and outside the Eurozone (and btw, am I the only person who thinks there’s a Crystal Maze comeback in here somewhere?). The issue, the misconstruction and misconception of sovereignty.

The notion of sovereignty as we understand it hinges almost entirely on the autonomy of the nation state. Of course the nation state itself is a construct devised by Germans at Westphalia in 1648 and improved upon at various junctures ever since. And the simple fact is, I contend here, the notion of the nation state is well past its sell-by date. Reasons being:

  • Globalisation – Aspects of the social contract now being fulfilled by private corporations and civil society organisations, particularly in least developed countries (Ireland circa 2011). Add to that the super-politics of transnational institutions such as the IMF and EU.
  • Information society – linked but distinct from globalisation. Technology and information society frees us from a top-down knowlege/power hierarchy, and this knowledge/power recognises national borders in extreme cases (e.g. the great firewall of China). To boot, the Marxist relationship between production and capital is arguably severed irreparably in places, not altogether a bad thing.
  • Risk society – Pervasive global risks (climate change, GM etc.) have led to the cosmopolitization of global society. Risk has been democratised across borders and time and negated the global ‘other’. At least that’s the theory. In other words, be it in Belfast, Berlin or Belize, the same big planet ending issues are faced by all.
  • Reflexive modernity – the very forces in society that unleashed modernity have undermined it. An example, our economic ingenuity has in theory allowed wealth creation and ownership through multiple layers of society, but really, quants in Goldman Sachs have led us on a merry dance, and at times its debatable if even they knew the havoc their credit default swaps and other assorted financial devices would cause.

So it looks like the nation state has more than a few chinks. Let’s take a looks so at the issue of Ireland in particular.

A genuine challenge that can be played with you and yours this holiday season, stick the sovereignty tail on the Irish nation state donkey below. And then just for kicks, stick another tail on the poor beleaguered beast to represent the moment sovereignty left town. Do let me know how you get on.

  • Dublin’s largest post office trashed in failed rebellion (1916)
  • Irish state formed (1922)
  • Oath of allegiance to Westminster/Windsors dropped (1937)
  • Irish republic declared (1949)
  • Entry into the EEC/EU (1973)
  • One to one link between Irish punt and sterling broken (1979)
  • Belfast Agreement (1998)
  • Euro becomes currency (1999)
  • Maastricht/Nice/Lisbon treaties (various)
  • Irish government commits over €50bn to banking/property sector (2008)
  • IMF assumes control of state budget (2010)

All well and good you say, so what, we have never been sovereign and Ireland in particular is in some sort of national state, or not. I make the points above to illustrate some of the reasons Ireland, and plenty of other Europeans states, are in this mess. And perhaps to being to explore ways out. It may actually suit the Irish government and indeed the populace of that country to suggest some sovereignty has been devolved to the IMF/ECB/EC/EU/KLF/whoever. Why? Well let us examine the social contract as it exists in Ireland. Around the same time the Germans, Spanish and Dutch were roasting hog in Westphalia, Hobbes was attempting to defined the duty of care a state owed to her citizens, a concept Rousseau later nailed. The citizen gives the sovereign (lawmakers) legitimacy and in return, the citizen is given protection from a life “nasty, brutish and short“. And here is where it gets interesting in relation to Ireland.

The social contract in Ireland, like those contracts for ghost hotels and bogland housing developments signed over the past 15 years, was never a document fully validated by the state. Yes the constitution asserted independence from non-state power-institutions, but even to this day the church in the republic is the legal owner of the majority of schools and hospitals. And make no mistake, this was complicit. Ireland could in the 1950s have taken the UK’s example and followed leading theories on the practise of health and social science (leading to the NHS in Britain) but instead allowed those institutions to remain in the hands of the clerics.

So we see there is a history of the Irish government reneging on its side of the the deal. This is likely to continue. During the last 20 years Ireland has not saved for a rainy days and its social services are at breaking point. If ever in the history of the state Fianna Fail have been aware of a social contract between the polity and the people, then that’s a piece of paper that has been lost down the back of the couch some time ago. It was found last week but I fear it has been dusted off and given to Oli Rehn of the EC, Ajai Chopra of the IMF and the “Others” to which Ireland is now in hock.

“Now the old system of industrialized society is breaking down in the course of its own success. Are not new social contracts waiting to be born?”
-Ulrich Beck, Reflexive Modernization

And yet in all of this Ireland has perhaps the greatest opportunity since the inception of the state in 1922 to redefine itself. To shape a society that is not a hangover from stale civil war politics, led not by “Soldiers of Destiny” or “the Tribe of Irish“. A society whose most important assets are not in the hands of a morally bankrupt church. A country whose leaders have a vision, some sort of vision.

Institutional reform is a must. There will be an election in January, the incoming Taoiseach must be elected with a mandate to tear down and rebuild the institutions of state. Whether the Dáil works or not is irrelevant, its legitimacy as a parliament has, like a bloodied sponge, been slowly wrung dry. Only total reform of the upper and lower houses, as well as the electoral system will do.

And Ireland, like most other western nations, must address those that walk the corridors of these institutions. It is time to call out the soothsayers of our time, the economists, and recognise their nakedness. These are the most powerful policy gatekeeprs of the modern age, all political decisions run through them. Yet, in a sense, economists are no different from the other discrete experts of modernity, the chemists, the physicists, the engineers. Experts in their fields yes, but capable of proscribing wide solutions for a better, fairer, happier society? Capable of the imagination needed to knock down and rebuild? Absolutely not. So why should all political decision run through them.

But perhaps in reforming the levers of the nation state we are looking for solutions and looking for “the political in the wrong place, on the wrong floors and on the wrong pages of the newspapers” to quote Beck (Reflexive Modernization). We have seen the great European and Bretton Woods institutions wrest power from above the nation state. It is time to create the sub politics that will also attack it from below. How might this look like? Well Hermann Scheer, in one of the last interviews given before he died this year painted a quite astonishing picture of how community energy projects in Germany were finally taking hold and transforming communities.

It is a fight. This is a structural fight. It is a fight between centralization and decentralization, between energy dictatorship and energy participation in the energy democracy. And because nothing works without energy, it’s a fight between democratic value and technocratical values. And therefore, the mobilization of the society is the most important thing. And as soon as the society, most people, have recognized that the alternative are renewable energies and we must not wait for others, we can do it by our own, in our own sphere, together in cooperatives or in the cities or individually. As soon as they recognize this, they will become supporters. Other—this is the reason why we have now a 90 percent support against all the disinformation campaigns. They have much more money and possibilities to influence the public opinion, but they lost this. They lost this conflict. In the eyes of the people, they lost the conflict. They are the losers already.

Energy is just one example, albeit an important one, where Ireland needs to look not at a Big Society model espoused by its neighbour, but a small society, one in which there is a common currency of values between those at the top and bottom, and one in which those values are illustrated and made real by projects such as Scheer’s in every community. Is this pie in the sky? No, there are tens of thousands of half finished developments, roads and houses dotted around the country, waiting to be used for something far more worthy than property speculation. Surely in these lies the infrastructure for a better society. And far better to spend resources on this sustainable (economically, socially and environmentally) endeavour than keep alive the banking institutions that have so utterly failed the country.

For the first time since 2004 I’m tempted, just a little, to go home.