Public must know more about electricity supply
The decision by the Utility Regulator, within the new Integrated Single Electricity Market, not to award any contract for electricity capacity from the main electricity generating units in Kilroot, has come as a surprise. In response, Kilroot owner AES, has submitted notice of their request to be allowed to close these two large coal or oil-based units at the end of May.
The surprise is not that these two units, offering a combined capacity of nearly 450 MW, have proved to be expensive. In a commercial ranking, using the criterion based on capacity offered, they were at a big disadvantage. Their exclusion means that an explanation is needed to show (a) that the Regulator has included enough other capacity to assure continuing overall security of supply in NI and (b) that the criterion being used is a good representation of the comparative overall operational costs of those units in terms of electricity delivered to suppliers. Both of these reservations leave degrees of uncertainty that need to be addressed in a serious debate about whether the closure of these units at Kilroot is justified.
The urgency of the questions emerges because the steps to close the main power station at Kilroot are now in planning and in the near future will become a non-reversible sequence.
Is an assessment based on capacity costs an adequate performance indicator when used as a single criterion?
If there is a continuing doubt about the role of Kilroot and its useful contribution to electricity supplies, decisions cannot sensibly be delayed. If, perchance, AES would be inclined to consider the viability of updating its investments in alternative generation technology, the Regulatory decisions are making that option less likely.
The debate about the useful life of Kilroot is essentially a debate about only a four to five year prospect. Emission criteria had already set the scene for closure or radical re-investment.
However, that four to five years is critical because the all-island grid is currently unable to distribute enough electricity across the whole island. Only a limited supply of electricity can be traded from south to north until the new link, now approved, is built.
A clearer explanation to demonstrate that the recent capacity auction is a guaranteed method of delivering the lowest sensible electricity prices to customers is awaited. A more arguable decision by the Regulator, through the all-island I-SEM, is to assume that NI can rely on 216 MW of capacity in peak demand through the Moyle Interconnector (to Scotland) as adding to the security of supply. This decision becomes arguable because the Interconnector does not offer guaranteed supply if, or when, there is a demand crisis in Great Britain.
A cold weather crisis in NI would probably come at the same time as in GB. If an electricity generator in GB was prepared to commit to competitively priced contractual capacity, when NI faced a shortage of capacity, that would be more reassuring. A further feature of the electricity grid in NI, until 2021-22 when the grid is strengthened by the new interconnector, is that whilst NI now has appreciable electricity capacity from renewable sources, there is a risk to be taken in relying on electricity from wind based renewable supplies giving acceptable security of supply. The immediate need is for a demonstrated professional judgment on whether, without taking risks relying on non-contracted capacity or excessive reliance on variable renewable sources, electricity from Kilroot will not be needed.
The public deserve to be better informed about how the new I-SEM systems will work. Restoring confidence in our electricity planning should be a simple communications task.