The island of Ireland has the potential to generate a large proportion of its increasing electricity needs through the use of renewable energy, largely based on harnessing the energy contained in the variable but significant wind strength.
Incredibly the electricity experts have shown that possibly 40% of the combined Irish energy markets could be sourced from wind power. There are, however, critical caveats.
First, the electricity grid must be reconfigured to allow more wind farms to be connected. At present, it is too constrained to allow a steady increase in connections, most of which will be in the western counties.
The actions to make this feasible are proceeding too slowly.
Responsibility lies between NIE Energy (the transmission organisation), the Utility Regulator, and the Minister and policy analysts at DETI.
The regulator awaits firm proposals with information on methods and costs. The Minister needs to set clear policy objectives with delivery dates.
A second caveat is that the whole island needs a system that allows greater flexibility in the transmission of electricity. This calls for arrangements that allow wind energy from Donegal to enter the grid in Northern Ireland in significant quantities.
It also calls for transmission lines which allow electricity to flow in large amounts across the border towards, and from, the Irish Midlands.
At present, the electricity grids, north and south, even with a ‘single electricity market’, cannot adequately cope with all the economic trading opportunities.
Iain Osborne, chief executive of the Regulatory Authority makes this point forcibly: “Because the network cannot take enough power from north to south of the island, that is really expensive.
“Every consumer in Northern Ireland should care about it because this year it is costing all of us about £25m to £30m and in later years will cost even more.”
“The current limits on cross-border trade work, at different times, to the disadvantage of both north and south.
“In general, it would be useful to be able to import more power from the south.
“In some year’s time, it would be useful to be able to export more wind power from the north to the south.”
This leads to a third caveat. The electricity grid(s) in Ireland with increasing supplies from wind power, because of the variability of wind strength, need to be able to draw offsetting supplies from other sources and, in addition to existing power stations, the next best option is to have enhanced capacity to link to the British grid from Ireland to Wales as well as Northern Ireland to Scotland.
When Ireland has spare capacity from wind energy, as is now a predicted possibility, it might feed into the GB grid and when the Irish ‘single electricity market’ needs top-up, the flow could be into Ireland.
The Wales-Ireland grid is being pushed with some expedition by the Irish policy makers.
Enhancing capacity on the north-south grid is now urgent, critical, overdue and needs serious dynamic leadership.
Ministers, north and south, know that the project is now costing money.
The Moyle electricity link to Scotland is now being used more heavily but there is no suggestion that its capacity limits act to put extra cost on consumers.
Iain Osborne believes that Northern Ireland could not rely solely on the transmission links with Scotland.
“If we were solely dependent on the link with Scotland, without a link to the Republic, then our costs would be a lot higher and our security of supply could be quite threatened.”
Can Ministers face hard-pressed electricity customers with any comfort knowing that inaction and delayed planning applications and decisions, are costing consumers more than €20m each year?