Facing future energy challenges on an all-Island basis

It is perhaps a significant pointer for the future that one of the most successful examples of North-South cooperation over the past decade has been in a vital area which is not even covered by the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Energy cooperation has seen the extension of the South’s natural gas pipeline network to the North in 2005, and the establishment of both an all-island (wholesale) electricity market  in 2007 and an all-island electricity grid in 2008.

The latter came about with the purchase of the Northern electricity grid operator, SONI, by the Southern grid company EirGrid. These hugely complex linked operations have been accomplished successfully with little publicity and no controversy – no controversy  because everyone agrees that in an age of scarce, expensive and often insecure energy resources, it makes sense for this small island to increase its energy cooperation to maximise security and minimise costs of generation and supply.

As a final piece in the jigsaw, earlier this month the Republic’s state-owned electricity company, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) – by far the largest in the South – announced that it was to buy Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) for just over £1bn.

Ireland, North and South, is the most vulnerable country in Europe when it comes to energy supply and security, given its lack of any significant indigenous coal or oil resources, and its geographical position as an island perched at the westernmost limit of pipelines bringing oil and gas from the world’s great providers in the Middle East and Russia. As that excellent report Infrastructure for an island population of 8 million1 pointed out earlier this year, the two parts of Ireland are dependent on a single pipeline from Scotland for 90% of their natural gas needs, and over 65% of Ireland’s electricity comes from natural gas, a much higher proportion than other European countries.

The supply of other vital fuels is equally vulnerable. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic import 100% of their oil, and the latter imports 70% of its solid fuels, figures which are far above the EU average. Last year’s draft Strategic Energy Framework for Northern Ireland estimated that ‘93% of Northern Ireland’s power generation is from externally sourced fossil fuels.’

All this means that Ireland’s electricity is among the most expensive in Europe, with industrial prices currently 28% above the EU average. This is one of the factors which has led to the Republic’s sharp deterioration in competitiveness in recent years. Electricity prices North and South have converged over the past decade.

With such an all-Ireland system in place, the energy challenges of the next 50 years – which are now seen as among the major challenges facing the whole planet – will be tackled on an island basis. Among these will be the capture and supply of renewable energies such as offshore wind, wave and tidal power (and maybe even advanced nuclear generation) and the kind of smart grid and meter technology which will allow them to flow smoothly into the island grid system and to individual firms and households.

The aim is that by 2030 renewable generation (mainly wind) will provide approximately 30% of electricity generation. Even this will be a mammoth task. Professor David MacKay, Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, estimates that the amount of wind power needed to provide half the power used by the UK’s car owners driving an average fossil-fuel car 50 kilometres per day would require covering the windiest 10% of the country with windmills. He emphasises that ‘if we want wind power to truly make a difference, the wind farms must cover a very large area.’2

Then there are the 70% of requirements which will continue to come from non-renewable sources. Vital policy decisions will have to be made on an all-island basis about the mix of fuels and the optimum share that gas, coal and – controversially but perhaps inevitably – nuclear will provide in the future.

Facing up to such difficult decisions will be the stuff of good government over the next 30-40 years. They are all about the survival and prosperity of the island as part of a sustainable planet as fossil fuels peak and then begin to run out. They will make the incomparably smaller ‘big’ decisions that Northern Ireland is used to – about policing and paramilitary violence and sectarian divisions – seem picayune by comparison. These are the decisions which will require unity and solidarity between Belfast, Dublin and London. It is a very challenging, but also a very exciting prospect.

Andy Pollak

1 Infrastructure for an island population of 8 million. Engineers Ireland, Irish Academy of Engineering and InterTradeIreland. February 2010, pp.30-35

2 David JC MacKay, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. UIT Cambridge, 2009, p.33

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.