SONI general manager Robin McCormick: 'We firmly believe that what we plan to do is going to be to everyone's benefit in Northern Ireland'
SONI general manager Robin McCormick talks to Margaret Canning about the fight to win hearts and minds in the bid to secure a North-South Interconnector for the electricity market
He's never strayed far from south Belfast in his upbringing, family life and career, but now Robin McCormick is tasked with dealing with the concerns of farmers and residents in border areas of Northern Ireland and the Republic as he seeks to get planning permission for the North-South Interconnector.
The general manager of the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI), which operates the electricity system in Northern Ireland, says securing the construction of the interconnector between Tyrone and Meath is crucial to ensuring "the lights are kept on" in Northern Ireland.
The 60km stretch of overhead pylons has been planned as a means of securing future supply and full realisation of the Single Electricity Market on the island.
SONI maintains that at present, restricted power flows on the existing interconnector between Tandragee and Louth can create bottlenecks on cross-border transfer capacity, increasing the cost of electricity.
But the father-of-one says he does not see the argument on the interconnector, which will pass through Tyrone, Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan on its way into Meath, as a "city versus country" discord. Instead, he says we all stand to benefit, with anticipated savings of £14m per year for energy users on the island if the interconnector is built.
He's a keen sportsman, and married to Cheryl, a nursery-school teacher. Daughter Shannon is studying for her A-levels at Methodist College, Belfast. In his free time, Robin enjoys running and has taken part in the Great North Run every year for 11 years. He's also a keen golfer and rugby fan.
While Shannon's school was defeated in the Rugby Schools' Cup on Friday, Robin is long accustomed to disappointments in rugby. "I landed in Methody with a group of people who were extremely good at rugby. But halfway through the second term, they realised I wasn't as quick or as strong as I might have appeared. The bigger guys got into the team. I moved down the ranks and took up hockey."
SONI, which has been owned by EirGrid in the Republic since 2009, recently took part in the second phase of public inquiry in Armagh for landowners and objectors to voice their concerns over the interconnector. Robin won't say whether he thinks opponents were won over during the inquiry. "That's hard to gauge. The Public Inquiry is the forum that the Planning Appeals Commission have to provide an opportunity for anyone who has an opinion to voice it.
"We're satisfied that we have fulfilled our obligations."
Robin is adamant that an over-ground interconnector in the form of pylons is the only game in town. Opponents of the interconnector, who have formed the pressure group Safe Electricity Armagh and Tyrone (SEAT), are campaigning for an underground alternative.
"I think the business community has embraced the need for the interconnector, and I haven't heard anybody saying that it's not needed. The objection is against the method.
"We have put in a planning proposal for an overhead line as it's the only viable alternative. While people would like to think that an underground cable is doable, or better, we don't take that view...
"If an underground cable were in position, we have to tell it within nanoseconds exactly what it's supposed to do every second of the day, and that would create more risks to the system and it wouldn't give us the benefits in terms of a safer supply and an integrated market," he explains.
The Republic of Ireland stretch of the interconnector won planning permission in December, but Robin doesn't feel there's any difference between the approaches on either side of the border. "I don't believe they are different or any less challenging in either jurisdiction. In fact, we are operating in different jurisdictions under different regulators, with two departments looking after energy policy, so we are familiar with that way of doing things." Following the Public Inquiry, the Planning Appeals Commission will make a recommendation to the Minister for Infrastructure on whether or not the project can go ahead. But with no Executive in place, we don't have a Minister.
However, Robin says he's not concerned about the present lack of Ministers and an Executive holding up the process. In any case, he says: "We would be optimistic that an Executive would be formed quickly if that was the case, and it would be business as usual.
"If there's another arrangement, there will still be a recommendation from the public inquiry whoever the Secretary of State will be, and whoever the Minister for Infrastructure may be, so they will deal with it with the same measure of interest and responsibility."
Whatever the outcome, he says the SONI mission is the same. Our job is to provide, as best we can, secure reliable electricity and we go to extreme lengths to provide that. Anything in the industry that adds additional cost isn't welcome and we need to be able to run electricity markets in as efficient a way as possible and avoid costs that fall to the Northern Ireland customer."
Engineering and the power industry weren't always where his interests lay. "I started off, when I went through school, being more interested in architecture. That's what I thought was my direction of travel. Four out of five of my post-A-level choices were to do with architecture. My final choice was engineering so that's what I ended up doing, much to my surprise."
He applied for jobs after finishing his degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Queen's University, including a traineeship at NIE - whose headquarters were even closer than Queen's to the McCormick homestead in Stranmillis. At NIE, which owned SONI, he was drawn to the transmission and distribution side of the business. "I felt there was a diversity in the business and lots of different things happening."
It was still a public sector organisation at that point but, as privatisation beckoned, he decided to take on an MBA to learn more about commercial business. "I argued that I didn't want to do it in a group of NIE people. I wanted to do it with people from other business, to have exposure to how others worked and what their commercial pressures were, in order to have a wider view." His fellow students were from "every corner of Northern Ireland business".
Progressing the interconnector project has meant a higher profile for the naturally private Robin.
"When I started in SONI in 2002 it was very low key. We just made sure the lights were kept on. When the Single Electricity Market was launched, that required a little more profile. After we were bought over by EirGrid we have had to establish ourselves as a standalone, outside NIE, with responsibility for the transmission network."
NIE workers are recognisable and familiar to the public - and his aim is to build SONI into a recognisable name. And since SONI took over responsibility for the interconnector in 2014, it has meant an even greater profile for it still. The company has dived into sports sponsorship, attending agricultural shows and reaching out to potential opponents of the interconnector through the appointment of liaison officers.
"I think to myself, what resources do I need, and then choose the sorts of people I need to support me in areas like public affairs and external affairs.
"My job becomes less about what I do and more about what everyone else does."
And he sums up Brexit as "an interesting challenge". "I don't think that the future of the North-South interconnector or I-SEM (integrated single electricity market) are impacted by Brexit. If there are changes that are required as a result of Brexit there are probably some practical implications, but I don't think it will stop them going ahead."
He says he is well aware of the objections to the interconnector. "I have met representatives of the folk who would have objections. We have been to the councils. I think it's fair to say there always is a level of empathy with the folk who are objecting.
"We are doing something for the benefit of everybody but more significant impact on the local communities so we must engage with them and reflect on what they say."
He says he's conscious of the impact that large pieces of electricity infrastructure can have.
"When I drive home from the office in east Belfast, I drive alongside a 275,000 volt circuit which is critical to keeping the lights on in Belfast but I see it and drive under it and around it. Infrastructure is absolutely vital. It's understandable people will have concerns."
Concerns aren't just about the visual impact of the pylons once built but, in the building process, access routes will be required to get onto land so that foundations can be built. Pylons will also have to be stored before they are erected. "Once the project gets underway, you work closely with landowners, there's a minimal disruption to their livelihood."
The decision of An Bord Pleanala in the Republic "was a relief, to the extent it has been a long time coming". "And it's not a country versus town argument at all. Any infrastructure, the folk who are impacted will have their views on it. Our job is to make sure opportunities are given for that type of discussion."
Business support for the interconnector has been well-documented, with the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce just one of the organisations to give the project its whole-hearted support.
And it's argued that the reliability of supply of the interconnector will enable data centres to set up in Northern Ireland.
"I work in Dublin a little bit and we would be in contact with some well-known companies moving into the data centre space. There is quite a level of activity and they are very clear about their needs for electricity supply."
QWhat’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A To enjoy the journey and as well as the destination.
Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
APlan well, take advice, work hard and enjoy the process.
Q What was your best business decision?
AThere have been lots of individual decisions that have brought me clarity, reduced the complexity of issues, and helped me to find cost effective and quick deliverable solutions. One of the best decisions would be when established in a senior technical role to apply for a business strategy job.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I would have liked to have been an architect or to be involved in a Third World emergency relief charity.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Favourite sport — golf! Favourite team — Manchester United.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Lots of them — squash, hockey, running and also cycling.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. A camp site in La Vendee, France. There’s a few still in planning at the moment — north coast/Iceland/France/Croatia. All sound really interesting.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. It all felt like an adventure — lots of fun, lots of friends, lots of opportunities.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I feel it is likely to continue to be challenging — but there are always opportunities to innovate and achieve.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with SONI?
A. Full of bright, dedicated people navigating a changing industry — challenging and very rewarding to be at the helm.
Q. How do you sum up working in the electricity/energy/infrastructure sector?
A. Exciting, complex, transforming from a command and control environment into a customer-driven sector.