Northern Ireland needs an improved electricity transmission system. South of the border, the same message applies.
Indeed, a shared investment programme to create a better transmission grid, with better transmission links to Great Britain, would be to everyone’s mutual benefit.
Problem is, whilst the ambition is not seriously in question, including by those who argue for more renewable energy sources, there is an inadequate planning and delivery mechanism to ensure that it happens to a reasonable timetable. Also, planning must reconcile the divergent interests.
Two tense factors go into the overall assessment. First, is it acceptable, aesthetically, to build a couple of hundred of kilometres of transmission pylons to improve electricity supply?
Second, and more argumentative, how are the local public objections to new high capacity overhead lines to be evaluated alongside the evidence of the professional electricity engineers that proposed locations are well chosen taking account of health, safety, environmental and operational benefits?
One apparent compromise has now been invalidated. Professional expertise, made available to Eirgrid and known to NIE, has examined the technology and economics of putting the new cross-border transmission link underground.
The stark conclusion is that a well chosen overhead route for the lines is preferred and very much cheaper. The professionals who know about electromagnetic fields, health, safety and maintenance are offering a strongly worded conclusion.
If Northern Ireland is really to enjoy the gains of a ‘single electricity market’ and also to take advantage of the potential to harness more electricity from wind farms, then decisions and actions to make it possible are needed. The current ‘virtual’ single market is more an artificial pricing construct than a flexible commercial mechanism.
Electricity supply development inevitably takes the debate into decisions that may be opposed by some interest groups.
That does not justify doing nothing. This is a major public policy issue and the merits should be argued through the planning permission and appeals institutions.
This project also illustrates the possible merits of a specially designed planning process for projects of major infrastructural significance.
However, although proposals to meet that need are soon to be tabled at Westminster, neither Northern Ireland nor the Republic has developed better mechanisms.
Transmission proposals for the cross-border grid and others internal to Northern Ireland are needed. Each further delay is keeping costs slightly higher than they could be and restricts the ability to add extra renewable capacity to the network.
The proposed new cross-border linkage has been on the drawing boards for over three years.
Although the topic is actively debated in Co Armagh and across the border, official action has been conspicuously missing. The cross-border proposals have generated opposition. Yet, although the merits must be assessed, no planning application has been submitted.
More recently, NIE suggested that a planning application may be ready by the end of 2008. As would be expected, an environmental impact assessment has been commissioned.
Even without further delays, this project will be (at least) two years later than estimated before it gets under way.
The Government department with responsibility for energy policy has been unhelpfully quiet. Is this an issue where the Minister should be asking questions and pushing a practical timetable?
Of course the Department is in favour of the principles. However, an active rather than a passive stance is merited.
Ultimately, approved schemes may not get consensual approval. That is why Government exists, to act in the best interests of the wider community.
The NIE project director for the Transmission Interconnector, David de Casseres, is unambiguous: “The project is critically important and the project should be delivered as soon as possible.”