Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Has Northern Ireland electricity network simply lost its power?

With homes and businesses hit by outages, the unavoidable question is whether our electricity system is fit for purpose.

The electricity supply network is owned and managed by NIE, which was bought by ESB in December 2010.

ESB, which operates the Republic's power system, is adamant other countries' networks would have been knocked out by such a severe snowfall.

Bernardine Maloney for ESB said: "It was caused by storms in Northern Ireland, which were very unique. It can happen to any electricity network."

ESB insists that there is no greater need for investment here than would be expected in any network as part of ordinary maintenance and renewal.

The level of electricity network investment is determined by the Utility Regulator, which decides on the trade-off between price controls and investment.

The Regulator has proposed £396m of investment to maintain the NIE network performance and continued growth in demand, after the current price-control system led to a 28% increase in capital expenditure.

The Consumer Council is in no rush to make a judgment on why the electricity network has failed to cope with the weather.

Patsy McGlone MLA, chair of the Assembly's enterprise committee, which monitors the electricity industry, also avoided jumping to conclusions. He said his committee has heard different views on the network.

But he added: "It seems that at the first sniff of snow, the electricity goes off. That doesn't seem to happen elsewhere."

Concerns have been raised previously about the state of our electricity network. A report three years ago by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors concluded there were serious problems with most of our infrastructure, highlighting the need for urgent investment in energy – particularly in renewables, water supply, waste management and transport.

RICS rated the quality of the electricity network at Grade C – needing significant investment, with a significant risk of infrastructure failure in five years.

"The ageing network, parts dating from the 1930s, and the overall asset base require significant replacement," said RICS.

There are signs that the issue is becoming a political priority. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness pointed out on Twitter a few days ago that Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, promised to invest £18bn in our infrastructure. But the Coalition does not regard itself as bound by that promise.

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