Belfast Telegraph

Connecting power north and south is an economic must

DUP MLA for North Antrim Paul Frew

It has been a very difficult month for Northern Ireland's manufacturing industry. Over 1,000 jobs are being shed, including almost 900 at Michelin's Ballymena plant, which has played a central role in my own constituency of North Antrim for decades.

In the days following the announcements, the high cost of electricity quickly came to the fore as a key pressure facing large-scale employers doing business in Northern Ireland. This is an issue that I have highlighted for years now, and was emphasised at Stormont by Michelin many times.

While there are a number of factors which contribute to electricity costs, the continued absence of the proposed North South Electricity Interconnector is having a direct effect on consumers throughout Northern Ireland.

In its absence expensive temporary agreements have been put in place with power stations to ensure electricity supply is available if we suffer a shortage - meaning consumers are effectively paying a high price for electricity we may never have to use.

A planning application for the North South Interconnector was submitted in 2009 but has suffered a number of delays since. However, it is expected a decision will be made in 2016.

The majority of political leaders at Stormont fully acknowledge the importance of the project and the need for it to be delivered without delay.

Yet Sinn Fein's continued opposition to the use of overhead lines and pylons has the potential to severely impact consumers and employers, quite possibly resulting in further job losses in the process.

As I have consistently said, undergrounding the North South Interconnector should not and cannot happen for a number of reasons.

We need a reliable link to integrate our electricity networks. Undergrounding a line of this length, 140km in total, would be a world first and would mean too many uncertainties. Look to the Moyle Interconnector for example, it has encountered one problem after another and only runs at half capacity presently .

One thing that is certain about an underground cable is that maintenance and repair involves significantly greater amounts of time and money than an overhead line.

If there is a fault, locating the problem, excavation and the repair process would likely take in the region of one to two months. During this time the line is disconnected and cannot be used. Compare that to a matter of hours to repair a fault on an overhead line.

Most importantly, however, constructing the line underground is prohibitively more expensive, with recent studies showing it would cost up to five times more than using overhead lines and pylons. This would be absolutely unacceptable and rather than help address the high costs of electricity would deepen the crisis.

Therefore any calls for the North South Interconnector to be constructed underground are irresponsible and clearly shows a complete lack of leadership and knowledge of the pressures at hand.

For me it is very simple: Stormont has to make the tough decisions that will benefit all of us in real terms.

Stepping up to the plate and supporting the delivery of the North South Interconnector will assist in lowering our electricity bills, more importantly though it will achieve a security of electricity supply that we have never enjoyed before leading on to further interconnection with GB and Europe which is vitally important for Northern Ireland moving forward.

Further interconnection to Europe could stave off pressure to build a large generation unit that would cost the bill payer millions more. Lower energy bills will facilitate further investment in the economy.

Crucially, it will help reduce the current cost base for our manufacturing industry which almost 80,000 people throughout Northern Ireland rely on to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families' heads.

For me the choice is simple, in fact, we have no choice.

Belfast Telegraph

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