Engineers Ireland president Dermot Byrne’s presidential address looked back at the landmark 20th-century energy transitions and forward to a future where advances in energy technologies have to potential to halt the biggest problem of our time: climate change

engineers-ireland-president-dermot-byrneDermot Byrne MEngSc, CEng, FIEI, the president of Engineers Ireland for 2016-17, presented his presidential address to a near-capacity crowd in Clyde Road last week (20 September). His speech was entitled ‘Ireland’s Energy Challenge: A Personal Perspective’. Byrne looked back at the landmark energy transitions of the 20th century and looked forward to a future where, despite massive advances in energy technologies, we are still neglecting to address the biggest issue of our time: climate change. In this issue and the next, we feature the new president’s address in full. 

In this year of remembrance, I’m going to start into the topic by going back to 1916, to the then-president of this institution, Mark Ruddle. He was Dublin City Electrical Engineer from the mid-1890s until he retired in 1919, with responsibility for electricity generation and distribution in the city.

Because he held the role of president for two years (1915-17), Ruddle gave his address in November 1915, in which he said: “If things had been normal, I might have been tempted to point out to you the important place electrical engineering has taken in the world’s work; how, by bridging time and space, and by enabling us to make fuller use of the materials and energy available, it has increased the efficiency of individuals and society, both mentally and physically.”

He continued, however: “The times have changed with a vengeance, and this vast upheaval which is shaking the foundations of civilisation and engrossing the attention of all humanity will not pass away and leave things as they were. We shall find ourselves in a new world after the war, faced with new conditions and with a very different outlook upon our surroundings.”

This address 100 years ago was very focused on the war effort, and the role of engineering – in what was deemed to be a ‘war of engineers’ – in bringing about military victory. But, more importantly, he was looking beyond the end of the war to a very much altered landscape, and the need for all to begin to prepare and plan, even in the middle of hostilities, for that future.

In this regard, Ruddle’s address reflected on a number of major socio-economic themes such as the need to address the skirmishes between capital and labour, finding the appropriate balance between the two, and the concept of a living wage for the least-efficient worker, which in his view must include some provision for the enjoyment of life.

Coming so soon after the 1913 lockout, these are quite progressive reflections, but perhaps they were informed by his experience and observations during that difficult time.


Demonstration of rural electrification in Lislin, Co Cavan, August 1957

Another major consideration was a concern in a post-war world that British manufacturing capacity might lag behind that of Germany, and the need to counter German industrial domination. Little did he know that in a few short years, under the leadership of a young engineer and future president of the institution, the new independent state would entrust the development of the Shannon Scheme to the German company Siemens-Schuckert. That young engineer was Thomas McLaughlin.

Since 1916, the transition that has taken place in every aspect of human endeavour is truly remarkable. In Ireland, the transition from a traditional rural subsistence economy to the thriving first-world economy was paralleled, and underpinned by, a transition in the energy system that powers our economy and our society.

We had the development of the Shannon Scheme and also the establishment of a national utility, the ESB, to manage output from the scheme and to develop and manage the total electricity supply for the State.

During the 1940s and ’50s, we had the further harnessing of our hydro resources and the development of an indigenous peat industry. In the ’60s, as the economy opened up and emerged from stagnation, oil became the prominent fuel. In response to the oil crises in the 1970s, we had a major push to diversify out of oil into natural gas and coal, such that by 1990 oil was reduced to 5% of primary energy source for electricity, from 65% a decade before.

These developments are recorded in the addresses of past presidents such as Bob Cuffe and John Lang, in the transactions of this institution, and in the book by my former boss and colleague the late Cecil O’Riordan, entitled Development of Ireland’s Power System 1927 to 1997. This book was developed and published by EirGrid, and as an aside, if I can suggest to my former colleagues in EirGrid, it would be great to see this brought up to date.

But perhaps the greatest energy transition that took place during the last century was that of rural electrification, in terms of impact on peoples’ lives, on the rural economy and on society as a whole.


These people in 1950s Kinvara, Co. Galway have modernised with electricity and radio. The table is still pulled to the side in the traditional manner however and the hearth remains the traditional focus. Cresswell Collection NUIG

This energy transition is well documented from a technical perspective in the book The Quiet Revolution by the late Michael Shiel. Just a week or so ago, a collection of stories on the rural electrification experience from a social and cultural perspective was published. This book is entitled Then There was Light and was edited by PJ Cunningham and my good friend Dr Joe Kearney.

One story I particularly liked relates to a man named Pat Varley who lived on the shores of Lough Corrib in Mayo. He was an ardent GAA supporter, and he listened to the 1950 and 1951 All-Ireland finals – both of which were won by Mayo – on the old style, battery-operated radio.

He thought it would be a ‘mighty event’ to have the electric radio installed for the next All-Ireland final (clearly hoping for another Mayo win), so that he could hear the golden voice of Micheál O’Hehir in all its glory. Wherever he is, he’s still waiting!

Transitions in energy and climate change

It is clear from these stories that electrification was not universally welcomed. For example, the fact that improved illumination would highlight physical defect was not overlooked. One elderly farmer, who had two daughters of marriageable age but who were not blessed with film-star looks, was overheard to say, “We’d better get rid of them two wans before the ’lectric light comes.”

Kearney writes that his grandfather stoutly resisted electrification, partly because he feared that “if we’re all connected to one power source, all some madman has to do is drop a bomb on Shannon and we’ll all be blown up in our beds!”.

However, what really shines out from these stories is that transformational moment when the light was first switched on in villages and houses throughout the country, captured powerfully in a poem by Phil Lynch called Changing Light, the last line of which reads:

“I flicked the switch.
It was as if my finger
had become a magic wand.
Outside, the dusk turned instantly to dark.
Inside, the light would never be the same again.”

The reason I’m looking back over the last century is to focus in on this notion of societal transformation and the transitions in our energy system – how we access and use energy for commerce, transport, heating etc – that enable such transformations to happen.

I want to highlight these transitions, because as we face into the remaining 80-odd years of this century we are, I believe, facing into another major societal transformation, the outcome of which is far from certain, and which will be shaped by how we respond – through mitigation and adaptation – to the challenge of climate change.

The reality of the challenge and the existential threat posed by climate change is, I believe, beyond question. The Fifth Assessment Report provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 stated: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer globally than any preceding decade since 1850. The IPCC has also stated: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and eco-systems.”

Extreme weather events and ecosystem changes


Extreme waves in Inis Meain, June 2016

Evidence is emerging in Ireland of the impacts of climate change in relation to extreme weather events and ecosystem changes. Storms such as those experienced in 2014, which previously would have been considered ‘one-in-100-year’ events, are now coming more frequently.

Earlier this year, we witnessed the devastation that flooding caused – flooding that is expected to worsen as our climate changes. Globally, this is the third year running to register record temperatures. In parts of East Africa, climate change, in conjunction with El Niño, has put over 20 million people at risk over last year and this year.

For pastoralists living in the lowlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, extreme heat means that the first to go are the goats and sheep on which they depend for their livelihood. After that, they are totally dependent on food aid, which thankfully this year has been better mobilised than in 1985. Worldwide, the insurance industry has recognised that climate change has the potential to make nonsense of their risk models.

This is all going to get worse, unless collectively we get to grips with the challenge and begin seriously to address it. On a positive note, at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, Ireland, along with 194 other countries, adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. This sets out a global action plan to limit global warming to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

What this requires is that globally we reduce to zero the accumulation of additional greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. In other words, we ‘stop filling the balloon’ – if possible and when technology allows, we start taking GHG out of the atmosphere – and we start to ‘deflate’ it. This is going to take time, measured in decades if not generations.

The question which then arises is: have we enough time? Or put it another way: can we deliver the societal transformation and underpinning energy transition quickly enough to limit global warming to the 1.5-2°C range which is deemed to be acceptable? That is the fundamental question I want to address.

The speed at which the energy transition to a low-carbon future takes place is a critical consideration and, if action is not taken soon, it may be too late. As one commentator has stated: “By the time humanity may come to fully realise how much they need to shift to low-carbon forms of energy, they will have passed the point of no return.”

So, what can we learn from previous transitions that might help us in thinking about ‘Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future‘, as the Government’s energy White Paper is called? The conventional wisdom is that such transitions are slow, due to the lock-in effect of very large investments in assets and infrastructure. Well, to pick just a few:

  • ardnacrusha

    Construction of the Shannon Scheme, Ardnacrusha

    The major step forward represented by the Shannon Scheme and the establishment of a national utility arguably took just ten years, from the time that Thomas McLaughlin joined the firm of Siemens Schuckert.

  • Rural electrification, from its beginnings in 1946, took just 20 years to reach the 80% completion mark. It took another 10-15 years for the remaining ‘ditherers, stragglers and backsliders’ – to use Joe Kearney’s phrase – to be completed.
  • In transport, how do we measure the transition from horse to automobile? Some commentators take 1916 as a starting point when volume production of the Model-T started, and estimate a transition time of from 20-30 years. This depends of course on whether we are talking about city or country.
  • More recent transitions include the paradigm shift from a large, national, vertically-integrated utility to a competitive, deregulated industry (15 years); the transition to a regional wholesale electricity market underpinned by the Moyle and East West Interconnection (15 years); and of course the rapid rise in renewables in electricity supply to reach 40% by 2020, just 13 years after the target was set.
  • Globally, the literature on energy transitions mirrors Ireland’s experience in many respects. Examples include the French transition to nuclear power, which saw a total of 56 reactors constructed in a 15-year period from 1974 to 1989 under the ‘Messmer Plan’; In China, the Ministry of Agriculture oversaw the installation of 185 million improved cookstoves over the 15-year period from 1983 to 1998, bringing significant improvements to the lives of over a half billion people in rural areas.

What I take from this is that energy transitions can happen quickly: in the region of 15 years when there is centralised decision-making and implementation, and somewhat longer at 20-30 years where there is a reliance on consumer behavioural change and adoption of new technologies.

Deciding factors here include:

  • Availability of the enabling technology;
  • A burning platform to change;
  • Clear customer benefits; and
  • Clear policy direction and implementation.

We have looked at past energy transitions and the factors that impact on their speed of completion. Looking forward now, what are those energy transitions that have to take place, and how quickly, if we are to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren?

In part two, President Dermot Byrne looks to the future of the electricity-supply sector in Ireland, considers the option of nuclear power and outlines the latest developments in electric vehicles. He also explains why climate change is today’s ‘burning platform’, but are we too late to extinguish the fire? O'RiordanElecclimate change,energy,Engineers Ireland,renewables
Dermot Byrne MEngSc, CEng, FIEI, the president of Engineers Ireland for 2016-17, presented his presidential address to a near-capacity crowd in Clyde Road last week (20 September). His speech was entitled 'Ireland's Energy Challenge: A Personal Perspective'. Byrne looked back at the landmark energy transitions of the 20th...